Greta Thunberg, Chris Packham, Jack Monroe and others credit their Aspergers with giving them the focus to get things done. Here, poet, writer and autist Joanne Limburg wonders if the condition has helped her, too

When I heard Greta Thunberg say that being different was a superpower, I had to replay her saying it. Several times. I was diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome at 42 and, seven years on, Im still far from sure what that means. Are those of us with autistic spectrum conditions disabled or different? Are we, by definition, deficient human beings, or are there compensations that come with our condition? Are there any circumstances in which autism could be considered, not merely an acceptable difference, but a superpower?

Thunbergs comment some two months ago was her robust response to commentators who had sought to use her Aspergers to discredit her, claiming she must be a nave puppet and calling her a weirdo with a monotone voice. She wrote: I have Aspergers and that means Im sometimes a bit different from the norm. And given the right circumstances being different is a superpower. #aspiepower.

As a fellow autist, I find myself stuck in the middle of these two incompatible views: on the one hand, autistic people are disturbed, nave individuals who are incapable of knowing their own minds or speaking credibly; on the other, autistic people are superhumans with a preternatural ability to see the truth of things and to articulate it without equivocation. The world would be better without us; the world would be lost without us.

Food writer and campaigner Jack Monroe, too, has written that learning to harness her own autistic traits has enabled her to see them as a kind of superpower. Novelist Katherine May is more ambiguous: My autism brings some things I really value the flood of words I experience, the ability to fixate on a subject and burrow deep into it, and an intense relationship with the natural world. But there are other bits Id get rid of. I break things and hurt myself all the time; and I hate the way that I dont remember faces and so come across as rude.

Would non-autistic me ever have had the focus to persevere in the isolating, all-consuming business of writing? Joanne Limburg. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Charlotte Moore, who has written about bringing up two autistic sons with high support needs, told me: I dont see my sons autism as a disability, exactly. In the right environment, they can (and mainly do) lead happy, healthy lives. So I prefer the word difference to disability. She continued: Can autism be a superpower? Probably, yes, in a few cases some autistic people do have extreme abilities but the popular belief that all autistic people are really geniuses isnt helpful to parents or carers struggling with autistic people with no speech and self-harming behaviours, meltdowns or sensory overload.

When I received my own diagnosis, I wanted to find out what it meant. I learned that Aspergers syndrome is a controversial condition, sometimes set apart from other forms of autism. Since 2013 it has no longer been recognised as a stand-alone diagnosis in the United States, now falling under the umbrella term autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but it still is in the UK.

The opposing views of autism disability or difference may owe their origins to two different models of autism outlined by two different psychiatrists. On the one hand, there is Leo Kanners autism, first described in the US in the late 1940s. It is characterised by repetitive movement, little or no speech and high support needs. On the other hand, there is Aspergers syndrome, named after Hans Asperger, the child psychologist and eugenicist who published the first definition of the condition in 1944, describing the children he encountered in his clinic in wartime Vienna as little professors. He famously said: It seems that for success in science and art, a dash of autism is essential.

For a long time, it was the Kanner view that prevailed. Autism was considered a severe disability and a rare one. Then, in 1976, the British psychiatrist Lorna Wing coined the term Aspergers syndrome and a new group of patients mostly children, overwhelmingly male began to receive this diagnosis. Autism is no longer considered rare. According to the National Autistic Society, just over 1% of the population is autistic. Other estimates are higher.

Learning to harness her autistic traits has enabled her to see them as a kind of superpower: Jack Monroe. Photograph: Nic Serpell-Rand/Rex/Shutterstock

Although Aspergers syndrome is no longer recognised in the United States, there are people who have grown up with it as their identity and they are sticking with it. Others have abandoned it in favour of the broader ASD. Controversy over Hans Aspergers possible involvement in the Nazis eugenics programme led some to drop the term. Many, like me, use autism and Aspergers interchangeably. I usually define myself as autistic, because I dont recognise any essential difference between myself and non-speaking autistic people.

I tried to figure out what autism might explain in my own life, including some of its negative aspects. Id had long experience of depression, anxiety and OCD. Had they arisen directly from a glitchy abnormal brain? Had they come about as a response to the adverse life experiences that accompany any difference, or might hypothetical non-autistic me have had them, too? And what about the more positive aspects? Would non-autistic me ever have had the focus or determination to persevere in the financially insecure, isolating, all-consuming business of writing?

I have always loved words and books. At the age of three, I would take my whole library to bed with me. My mother described me as a not very childish child, who preferred to talk to adults rather than other children. When I was nine, a teacher read a poem Id written to the class, and I decided then and there to be a writer. That was a rare happy moment at primary school. Like many parents of autistic children, my parents found themselves with a child that mainstream education refused to accommodate. Their solution (not one open to everybody) was to re-mortgage the house and send me to private school. For my parents, my autism, literally, came at a great cost.

If I picture myself at Thunbergs age, I see certain similarities. I was idealistic, passionate about what I believed, blunt in the expression of my ideas. I was uninterested in makeup or any other aspect of what my mother called making the best of myself. I was a vegetarian, because two years earlier Morrissey had said that meat was murder. I didnt go in much for what people think of as normal teenage socialising. Instead, I pursued my own interests and I pursued them single-mindedly.

An audience of one: comedian Hannah Gadsby finds it easier to speak in public than in private. Photograph: Michael Buckner/Rex/Shutterstock

My passions were writing, the Beatles and feminism. I read my way through the Womens Studies section of Edgware Library, and passed The Female Eunuch round the sixth form at my all-girls school, to raise the consciousness of the sisterhood. I announced to my mother that I was not going to go to university, because to do so would only mean following a patriarchal curriculum. Mum told me to stop being so silly. I went to university, but I took Greer and De Beauvoir with me.

So that was how I was 33 years ago: intellectually curious, idealistic and articulate. I could even be funny sometimes, but I was also intense and sullen, with few social graces. Aspergers wasnt available to me as a diagnosis in the 1980s, but people found other words for me. They said moody and difficult or thinks too much. I still find it painfully difficult to maintain a conversation with more than one or two people at once. I have to overcome a wagon-load of inertia in order to clean my teeth, wash and dress. On a bad day, it seems to me that everything I have managed to do as an adult earn money, find a partner, raise a child has only been possible because I have learned to suppress my autism.

But thats not to say I see no advantages. Like Greta Thunberg and the comedian Hannah Gadsby, I find public speaking easier than casual conversation. In her brilliant Ted talk, Gadsby asks how she can be so good at something talking she knows she is so bad at. The answer is that standup has none of the pitfalls conversation brings for autistic people. When she is on stage, Gadsby does not have to listen as well as speak, she does not have to figure out how to respond to what she hears, she does not have to do all the exhausting parallel processing that an autistic person has to consciously engage in during everyday conversation. She has figured out what she wants to say and she can just say it, without distraction or interruption. Perfect.

And I can add from personal experience, that when you have to perform almost every time you interact, performing in front of 1,000 people isnt very different to performing in front of three. To a non-autistic person, who finds conversation easy but public speaking unnerving, this may well look like a superpower.

Another trait that we have on our side is the intensity of focus with which we pursue our passions. Chris Packham, naturalist and environmentalist and ambassador for the National Autistic Society, explained how the strength of his sensory response to the world around him enables him to engage with the natural world with greater clarity and ease. Packham said that from an early age, he could see things which others couldnt in nature.

From an early age he could see things which others couldnt in nature: Chris Packham. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images

There is a third trait associated with Aspergers syndrome that Packham shares with Thunberg and which makes them both such effective activists. It is a certain moral single-mindedness, sometimes pathologised as rigidity of thought, but at other times framed more positively as a strong sense of justice. Thunberg has spoken of her ability to see things in black and white for her, this is not rigidity, but clarity. Autistic people, in general, feel the pull of the truth more powerfully than we do the pull of fitting in. We are not inclined to accept reassurance that has no facts behind it.

Sometimes I do pretend to accept it. Ive changed since I was a teenager: softened, become more pragmatic. It makes me easier to get on with, but when I watch Thunberg, I wonder what I might have done if I hadnt spent so much energy learning how to smile when I talked.

I asked Steve Silberman, author of NeuroTribes: the Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, whether he agreed with Thunberg. Autism, he said, is a disability that can have advantages in the right situation, and with the right support. Gretas intense focus and disregard for others opinions of her are superpowers in that they help her ignore the fossil-fuel industrys lies, take on the facts of climate change, and organise her peers to change the world.

Perhaps we can change the world, if we dont let it change us too much. Packham has suggested that: Humanity has prospered because of people with autistic traits. Without them, we wouldnt have put a man on the Moon or be running software programmes. If we wiped out all the autistic people on the planet, I dont know how much longer the human race would last.

At the same time, there are some autistic people who see no advantage in it, and would gladly take a cure. There are some parents so desperate to believe in a cure that they put their faith in bogus treatments, sometimes with terrible consequences.

So, what do I have a disability or a difference? I asked developmental psychologist Professor Uta Frith the question: Both points of view are valid and should be respected, she told me. We might avoid confusion by dividing the spectrum into subgroups, but where the boundaries would be is far from clear. We need more research to tell us what autism really is.

Theres no telling where the boundaries are between a persons autism and the autistic person. As far as I can tell, everything I am, I am autistically. If you took the autism away you would take me with it. And, regardless of whether autistic people have superpowers or not, when the world gives us the support we need, we thrive, and give the best of ourselves in return. Youve not seen the best of us yet.



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