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Spokane autism community responds to comments about teen climate activist

UPDATED: Tue., Sept. 24, 2019

Greta Thunberg, center, walks with an entourage after passing a security checkpoint Monday while appearing at the United Nations in New York. (Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)
Greta Thunberg, center, walks with an entourage after passing a security checkpoint Monday while appearing at the United Nations in New York. (Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)

Fox News pundit Michael Knowles characterized teen climate activist Greta Thunberg as a “mentally ill Swedish child who is being exploited by her parents and by the international left.” But Jim Matthews, executive director of SOAR Behavior Services in Spokane, said Thunberg’s own description of her “neurodiversity” as a superpower is much more accurate.

Fox issued an apology Tuesday for Knowles’ comments.

“The comment made by Michael Knowles who was a guest on ‘The Story’ tonight was disgraceful – we apologize to Greta Thunberg and to our viewers,” a spokesperson for the network told the Washington Post in a statement.

Fox has remained silent about television host Laura Ingraham drawing parallels between Thunberg and Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn,” the Associated Press reported. Ingraham and Knowles were reacting to Thunberg’s speech before the United Nations on Monday.

In an Aug. 31 Instagram post, Thunberg wrote, “I have Asperger’s syndrome and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And – given the right circumstances – being different is a superpower.”

Matthews, a board-certified behavior analyst, said Thunberg’s case was likely a unique symbiosis of an ability to deeply delve into a topic and the desire to be a fierce advocate for something she believes in.

“People with Asperger’s or high-functioning autism oftentimes have very specific interests and can hyper focus on it,” Matthews said. “ … she has really been able to delve deeply into the science and the research behind climate change and turn that into something actionable to have a real effect on the world so, as far as it being a superpower, that’s a good characterization.”

In her UN speech, Thunberg scolded delegates.

“We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy-tales of eternal economic growth,” she said. “How dare you! You are failing us, but the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you, and if you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you.”

Matthews added that in the case of Thunberg, he has seen no evidence that she’s being manipulated, as Knowles implied both on-air an later in a tweet.

“There is nothing shameful about living with mental disorders,” Knowles tweeted. “What is shameful is exploiting a child – particularly a child with mental disorders – to advance your political agenda.”

Julie Parry, Autism Society of Washington Spokane chapter president, pointed out that autism can be a developmental disorder, but is not a mental illness. Dawn Sidell, Northwest Autism Center director, said there is nothing shameful about having a mental illness, and neither autism nor mental illness should devalue someone’s contributions.

“Many brilliant people have mental illness and there are passionate people who care about the universe who have autism,” Sidell said in a statement. “Neither of those ‘conditions’ precludes a right to speak, to be heard, and to have value. It is painful to be reminded of the ignorance that still exists and its power to sway.”

Both Parry and Matthews said Thunberg is a role model.

“She is standing up for something that she believes passionately about, and not being ‘debilitated’ by her diagnosis,” Matthews said.

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