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Why Greta Thunberg Should Go Back to School

(Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

As a fellow person with autism, I hope to make clear why educational support—and going to school—is so essential to the lives of people with autism.

To begin, for the purposes of this discussion, I will not be commenting on the content of Greta’s climate activism itself, even though it has likely come to considerably define her life. I am in no way claiming to be a climate scientist and—partially for this reason—I will refrain from making any definitive statements about climate change, as either a scientific or political concept. What I am familiar with are teenagers like Greta Thunberg and the significance of attending school at such an age. As a fellow person with autism, I hope to make clear why educational support—and going to school—is so essential to the lives of people with autism. 

In Gabriel Andrade’s recent Merion West piece concerning Greta, Andrade greatly acknowledges that the approach Greta represents — the use of a script-reading child — should not be practiced when a society is trying to engage with a complex issue, like global warming. “Angry children who read scripts but are not really capable of answering questions or engaging in debate” Andrade writes, “do not bring much to the table other than feel-good hipness.” Greta might be a very intelligent girl — whether or not you include her script reading skills when judging her intellect — but that doesn’t make school redundant. Greta’s father, Svante Thunberg, somewhat agrees and questions her decision to leave school. Like most fathers, Greta’s father supports his daughter in what she is doing—but for reasons other than the climate: “I did all these things, I knew they were the right thing to do…but I didn’t do it to save the climate, I did it to save my child.”

Greta has been rather outspoken about her disorder — Asperger Syndrome (AS)— and perceives it as a “superpower.” Few would discourage her from seeing her condition in a positive light. I, myself, am an advocate of this type of optimism—partly for its suggestion that there is a positive side to autism, something that certainly is the case. Nevertheless, one should be careful with assuming that said “superpower” is a fixed feature of the autism spectrum. That is, individuals with autism shouldn’t approve of the diabolical saying: “You’re perfect as you are.” The Canadian psychologist, Jordan B. Peterson, among others, has also  articulated a version of this idea. 

We often overlook a key characteristic of autism and disorders alike: it’s developmental quality. The concept of a developmental disorder should imply that someone who is diagnosed with such a disorder can make reasonable progress during his or her lifetime. Features that are associated with these disorders are in no way all static, and, actually, many who deny the crucial essence of their (or their children’s) disorder ruin its betterment. Equally detrimental is the denial of parents when facing the diagnosis of their child’s developmental disorder. Aside from the increasing acceptance and prevalence of such disorders, we can’t justify parents (and children) denying any claims about these disorders which, as a result, partly squander the capacity for the person to improve his or her symptoms. 

Any deviations from this subject will result in a lack of knowledge. Like Andrade already mentioned, these situations underly Greta’s inability to answer rather simple questions properly.

Fortunately, Greta’s parents are not members of the full autism denial group; however, by failing to insist that she attend school they are impeding her development. In an educational environment, Greta can actually apply her intelligence to pick up skills like debating and how to effectively compile knowledge regarding her field of interest. I have discussed before (at Merion West and Medium) the fixations and interests people with this form of autism hold ; I have called them, “Meta-interests.” As far as we know, Greta does not show her interest to be on the science behind climate change; rather her interest focuses squarely on the activism. Any deviations from this subject will result in a lack of knowledge. Like Andrade already mentioned, these situations underly Greta’s inability to answer rather simple questions properly.  

The interviews Greta gives are often anything but spontaneous. This only results in Greta responding with generic answers without bringing anything valuable (or new) to the table. No wonder. The science behind climate change is incredibly complex, much like proverbial “rocket science” itself, and we would both fool Greta and ourselves by considering her “superpower” as a possible answer to our global problem. In the past, there have been many prominent thinkers who supposedly had a form of autism (e.g. Nikola Tesla, Charles Darwin, Henry Cavendish, etc.). However, this does not suggest that anyone who falls on the autism spectrum has some kind of “golden touch”— determined to produce an exceptional piece of work. Different does not equal beneficial. 

If someone like Greta doesn’t have the facts at hand regarding climate science, why would she be the one chosen to persuade others regarding the actual urgency of climate change instead of a real climate scientist? The reason lies in her persuasion tactic—or that of her puppeteer. Partly because of her young age and autism, her credentials could be non-existent. The only component at stake is her way of using passionate emotions when distributing her message. Important to note is that Greta (and her message) is acting on a political playing field. That implies—as Crispin Sartwell notes in his December, 2019 Quillette essay—that these statements that Greta is making rest on visceral commitment. Instead of a rational component coming into play, the statements fixate on emotions alone. Sartwell continues by explaining the effectiveness of these emotion-based statements, instead of statements based on factual knowledge: 

“And to persuade you to do likewise [e.g. For you to believe the earth is in great threat as a result of global warming], I am going to have to express passion, not present a series of practical syllogisms or scientific papers. No one’s politics is based on deliberative rationality. And no one’s politics is based on science, of course.”

With this in mind, may we perceive Greta as the perfect candidate for the job? Not exactly. She admits that because of her Asperger syndrome she perceives things black or white: “You can’t be a little bit sustainable; either you’re sustainable or you’re not sustainable.” These complex issues that she is involved with need gray areas. Without the knowledge needed to address these complicated issues like climate change, we will not accomplish much besides a 17-year-old child telling you if your company meets her conditions of sustainability. 

With this in mind, may we perceive Greta as the perfect candidate for the job? Not exactly. She admits that because of her Asperger syndrome she perceives things black or white: “You can’t be a little bit sustainable; either you’re sustainable or you’re not sustainable.” These complex issues that she is involved with need gray areas.

Instead of occupying herself with these — what I would call — unproductive activities, Greta might redirect these same efforts towards her own development. One way to explore this development is their adherence to rules. Deborah Barnbaum’s 2008 book The Ethics of Autism examines the morality of autistic people through the use of philosophy. Something we (people with autism) struggle with is our ability to show empathy towards others. What follows are often complicated social interactions in the short term, as well as in the long term. Barnbaum, for example, mentions the German philosopher Immanuel Kant as a way to address the capability for morality. Kant argued that the preeminent principle that personal morality is built upon is the Categorical imperatives— simply stated, a set of rules that cannot be deviated from. 

This way, people on the spectrum do not need any empathy to be moral; they need rules — and perhaps someone to help them to set up and interpret those rules. It might look like some sham-morality that is being taught to people with autism, and I cannot disagree. Nevertheless, from my own experience, I can state—with confidence—that this is much better than not having any rules to guide one through difficult situations ,  including social ones. One of the leading researches in the field of autism, Simon Baron-Cohen, recognizes this way of development. His observations and research not only indicate a person with autism’s ability to be moral but, “even [to] be hyper-moral, wanting all of us to follow the rules in a precise way and to the nth degree. Some become the whistle-blowers when they spot the rules being broken.” The added preference for rules makes it possible for people with autism to accomplish similar goals as neurotypicals but by taking a different route to Rome. Baron-Cohen concludes that: 

“While many ‘neurotypical’ people arrive at their morality via a very visceral empathic route, responding emotionally to another person’s distress, other people (and this includes many with Asperger’s syndrome) arrive at their moral code through a logical route based on rules (systemizing).”

Lastly, as I’ve stated repeatedly, the science behind climate change has no business being played with by teenagers. Felix Kirby explains this in detail in his April, 2019 Quillette article “Teenage Climate-Change Protestors Have No Idea What They’re Protesting”: 

“Global-warming research is a hugely complex field, and it’s unlikely that any ordinary person — let alone a minor — would have any real grasp of it. Nor would they be able to appreciate the uncertainty that characterizes our understanding of how today’s human activity will affect the future state of the earth’s climate.”

For those teenagers interested in the subject of climate change, there should be information available—or perhaps lessons conducted that illustrate the data surrounding climate change in an accessible manner. Skipping school is—in no way—a viable option, especially for those whose further development is vital in the adolescent stage. Despite everything, Greta has made a great first step by perceiving her Asperger’s as a beneficial factor instead of a constant restriction. 

At the end of the day, Greta (and people with autism in general) wish to operate on a neurotypical level in society—just like anybody else but without being neurotypical. Being able to accomplish this requires some assistance, preferably in an environment where individuals who have some expertise with autism can assist her with her development and possibly where she can explore her interests. This — the ability of a disorder to develop — should not imply, in any way, the existence of a complete “cure.” To this day, no antidote to autism has been found—only  methods of improvement. Some autistic features will not advance in any way—no matter how many rules might be applied. Instead of ending on a pessimistic note, I will observe that the fact that Greta is unable to efficiently understand or address climate change does not imply that she is unable to accomplish other worthwhile things. So, I would recommend her many followers, including Slavoj Žižek, support her for something else that she might be able to do, something, this time, she might be able to do without a script.

Alessandro van den Berg is an economics teacher in the Netherlands.

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