In The Politics of Autism, I write: "Support from the general public will be an important political asset for autistic people. Another will be their sheer numbers, since a larger population of identified autistic adults will mean more autistic voters and activists"
But entering the public arena also means unfair criticism.
Like young people the world over, I was delighted to hear that Greta Thunberg, the youth climate activist, has set sail for New York on a zero-carbon boat. The 16-year-old is making her way across the Atlantic with plans to travel through the US, Canada and Mexico, culminating in an appearance at the annual UN climate changeconference in Chile in December.
And though I was shocked at the extent of the vitriol levelled at her as she started her voyage, I was not surprised to see her under attack.
From journalist Sarah Vine, who questioned whether Thunberg’s GQ cover appearance was “a bit….. weird?”, to multi-millionaire Aaron Banksmaking comments about "freak yachting accidents”, some of the responses to her latest campaigning are simply cruel.Scott Waldman at Scientific American:
Many have pointed out that she's facing a disproportionate amount of abuse because she's a young woman. That may be part of it, but there's a bigger issue – the fact that she is honest and open about her diagnosis of Asperger syndrome.
But the success of Thunberg — who describes herself on Twitter as a "16 year old climate activist with Asperger" — remains a sore point for those who reject mainstream climate science and some who have helped shape or encourage the Trump's administration rollback of climate policy.
They frequently point to Thunberg's autism, claim she is used by her parents and compare her call to young people on climate change to "Hitler Youth." They have pointed to her "monotone voice" and framed her as a "millenarian weirdo" with the "look of apocalyptic dread in her eyes."
A recent opinion piece in The New York Times prompted an outcry among climate hawks and Thunberg's allies, who said the newspaper was validating these types of personal attacks on the teenage activist.
Experts say relying on ad hominem attacks has significant collateral damage in that they dissuade people with intellectual and developmental disabilities from speaking publicly. While the language of describing someone as a "puppet" or abused by adults may appear coded, it's clearly a dog whistle that signals her words should be discounted because her mind works differently, said Steve Silberman, author of "NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity."
"It's classic autism bashing," he said. "They feel at liberty to do it because autism has been framed as a pathology for decades, so they feel like they don't have to hold back, than just 'other' her, turn her into a freak when she's actually making more sense than 95% of the adults who have addressed this issue for the last 30 years."