The Asperger Superpower

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There are, of course, many differences between Greta Thunberg and me.

For a start, she learnt she has Aspergers when she was a child. She was probably told what it was, how it might affect her life, and she’s smart enough to have got the picture. At only 16, she’s obviously been through all the stages – the denial, the anger, the bargaining, the depression – and already come out the other side to acceptance.  Whereas I was well into adulthood before realising that whatever was wrong with me was not getting any better, and it took another decade or so to find a name for it. As far as acceptance goes, I’m still sanding the rough edges off my self-image.

Our personalities are divergent, too. While Greta has already decided that being different is OK and she doesn’t care too much what others think of her, most of my life has been spent trying to fit in and be normal. At school I was always a B grade student, partly because I never got my act together on the concept of homework, but also because why work to get A grades, when all it will do is make you stand out and invite jealousy and resentment? No, thanks. And I certainly didn’t have Greta’s level of determination and drive at that age. There were things I cared about, but not enough to throw myself completely into the cause as she has done.

So when Greta claimed Aspergers was her superpower, my first thought was to scoff. That’s what they tell newly-diagnosed kids, to prop up their self-esteem (or in the hope they might grow up to be Einstein). Who does she think she’s kidding?

Yes, I know, shame on me for being cynical. And for not acknowledging something important, which is that the condition does convey advantages in some areas. And yes, maybe I should be celebrating the strengths as much as I vent on the weaknesses. So this post is intended to make up for that.

The hard part is in explaining just what the Asperger superpower is, or what it does. How does it work? Having Aspergers doesn’t give one any more insight into the subconscious workings of one’s brain than anyone else, so it’s a bit like the old adage of explaining sight to a blind man.

What I can say is, those who question how a 16-year old can be qualified to talk on climate change really don’t understand. Personally, I have no doubt that Greta would be capable of not only reading and understanding scientific reports, not only identifying and extracting the important points, but of incorporating that data into the complex geopolitical model of the climate change debate that is being constantly updated and refined in her head. That’s the essence of the superpower.

The thing I find amazing is that this tiny autistic girl can then walk amongst thousands of shouting protestors at a climate rally and maintain enough composure to be able to make a speech. With perfect diction, in a foreign language. How crazy is that?

Incidentally, those who say she ought to smile more don’t understand, either. It’s pretty clear that the way she gets through public engagements is by focusing on what needs to be said and ditching anything distracting from her purpose. For autists it takes a lot of brainpower to remember under which social circumstances one is supposed to smile. (Personally I do it the other way around and try to smile all the time, which is usually OK, until someone tells me their dog just died. Woops.)

But I digress. The point I’m making, in a roundabout way, is that we shouldn’t be seeing the condition as either a superpower or a disability. It is not either/or, it is both.

While Greta is happy to claim the superpower aspect, she’s too canny to publicly admit to the downsides. But it’s implicitly there, if you read the full quote of her tweet:

“I have Asperger’s and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And – given the right circumstances – being different is a superpower.”

It’s in the qualifier, the “given the right circumstances”. The trick to being successful with this condition is to find a niche which makes maximum use of the superpower aspect and minimises the disability aspect. It’s about working out the best way to use the cognitive tools we’ve been given, within the limitations imposed.

So now, having thought about it, if anyone suggests to me that Aspergers is a superpower, I might be inclined to agree. But I might also point out, to avoid any resentment, that just like superpowers in the movies, Aspergers comes with downsides too. Since when did possessing a superpower ever make anyone’s life any easier?

Take care, Greta.