Even when autistic people are honored, like Thunberg was when she was named Time’s Person of the Year, we are immediately discredited as children, reinforcing the ideas that children and autistic people alike have no agency and our work is illegitimate. For me, this has happened at every stage of my work as an advocate, since I drafted legislation on police training in Massachusetts when I was still in high school up to when I designed lesson plans on disability justice used in thousands of middle and high school classrooms through Amplifier’s We The Future art education project.
When people say they can’t believe I am autistic, they mean it as a compliment. But the comment is really a backhanded insult, rooted in the fact that society defines disabled people as incompetent, inferior, and permanently infantile.
This attitude is rooted in the notion that children (whether disabled or not) and disabled people of all ages are both incapable of speaking for ourselves, making our own decisions, or having ideas that should be taken seriously. It is what Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, meant when he tweeted that Thunberg is “used as a marketing gimmick.” His words echo professionals in my field who dismiss me as necessarily illegitimate either because they assume that a “truly” disabled person cannot be a lawyer or capable activist, or that they can discard my work as irrelevant and meaningless specifically because I am disabled.
As an attorney and longtime advocate, I have heard countless disabled adults of all ages and in all fields of work tell me that they left or were forced out of their schools or jobs because of extreme hostility on the basis of disability, but that no one has ever believed them before.
Conversely, for all the scrutiny I face and the questions of whether I am “truly” disabled, detractors of the idea that all disabled people are fully human routinely question whether people they consider “actually” disabled who need more intensive support have their own voices or can truly support neurodiversity or disability rights. They say that because advocates like Mel Baggs, Amy Sequenzia, David James Savarese or Benjamin McGann type or use support to communicate, they must be necessarily victims of exploitation by nondisabled people.
Russian President Vladimir Putin repeated the same refrain when he said that adults are using Thunberg, deploying ableism to denigrate her because of her disability and to delegitimize what she has to say. Denial of autistic people’s agency aims aim not only to silence us, but to punish us and force us into compliance with coercive and invasive treatments, place us under onerous guardianships when courts assume we lack even the most basic decision-making capacity, and prevent us from seeking and receiving support and care that is not made contingent on maintaining palatability.
In my own work, I’ve witnessed denial of young autistic transgender people’s legitimacy from smarmy detractors who insist that they cannot possibly be both transgender and autistic because we have fallen victim to transgender adults with nefarious agendas who exploit our presumed susceptibility to manipulation.
Attacks on Thunberg that rely on claims that she is to be pitied and saved from adults may seem motivated by benevolent concern. But they only reinforce the ableist and ageist idea that children and autistic people lack agency and cannot exercise their own autonomy, which is wrong.
The attacks on Thunberg are also clearly gendered, as powerful women throughout history have been accused of existing only as pawns for men controlling them, and constantly face dismissal and delegitimization because of their righteous anger.
I know both from history and my own experiences as an advocate who has spoken at the United Nations and the White House, and who has met hundreds of other remarkable advocates, that Thunberg is a powerful and visionary leader not despite her youth, gender, disability, or anger — but in large part because she is a young autistic woman rightfully angry about the repeated failures and refusals of people with the power to reverse our oncoming climate catastrophe to do so. And for that persistence and passion, Thunberg and her many peers like Xiuhtezcatl Martinez and Isra Hirsi who are leading the way, deserve our respect and admiration — we will all suffer irreparable harm if we allow political leaders to continue denying the agency and power of youth moving us forward.