'Unfortunate' comment calling Greta Thunberg 'mentally ill' shows 'lack of understanding' - Autism NZ

Greta Thunberg.
Greta Thunberg. Photo credit: Retuers

When Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg gave a rousing speech at the UN earlier this week, she didn't just draw attention to climate change. People also focused on the fact that she has Aspergers, something she has embraced as her "superpower".

That superpower came under attack, however, when Fox News guest Michael Knowles referred to Greta as the "mentally ill Swedish child".

Although Fox later apologised, the comment highlighted the fact that there remains much misunderstanding about what Aspergers is. 

Autism New Zealand's chief executive Dane Dougan said the comment was "unfortunate".

"What that comment shows is a lack of understanding and ignorance of our community," he said.

Speaking on Magic Talk on Wednesday, Dougan explained more about what Aspergers is.

Is Aspergers the same as autism?

Although previously considered a separate syndrome, Aspergers is now officially part of the autism spectrum.

Dougan says Aspergers is "on the lower needs of the autism scale - and a lot of that comes around social interaction and that kind of thing."

People with Aspergers, he says, usually need less support than people higher up the autism scale.

What are the symptoms?

"Essentially what it is is a different way of seeing the world and a different way of interacting with the world," Dougan explained. 

"One of the traits is that they can become very focused on one particular area of life or of society", just like Greta is with climate change, he said.

Another symptom is related to reading physical signals.

"One of the traits of Aspergers and autism, in general, is understanding body language and facial expression - and again, it's just a matter of understanding and learning," says Dougan.

What support is there for people with Aspergers?

The key to dealing with people with Aspergers, says Dougan, is not to try and change the person, but to change what's around them.

"The approach we take at Autism New Zealand isn't about trying to change a person with Aspergers or autism, it's about trying to change the environment around them so they can go on to live to their full potential and do the amazing things that some of them are going to go on and do."

Are people with Aspergers smarter than people without Aspergers?

People with Aspergers are not necessarily more intelligent than people without Aspergers.

"There's no evidence to suggest they are any smarter than the general population," says Dougan. "Overall, it's just that ability to be focused on one area and really be part of that particular area and just not stop until you have all the information that you have about it."

For people higher up the autism scale, people often do have a higher IQ, Dougan says.

And although the ability to focus can be an advantage - it can also have a flip side.

"That can be quite dangerous in some ways, as well, in terms of making sure they don't get too focused on something," says Dougan. "It also has to be managed as well."

Is everyone with Aspergers diagnosed?

The earlier someone is diagnosed with Aspergers, the better. But in some cases, people can spend their whole life without being diagnosed. 

"We have a system in New Zealand that is quite inconsistent and we definitely don't pick up a lot of people who have autism - we're trying to change that now," says Dougan.

"We have people who are diagnosed at 60, we have people who are diagnosed at 70 and it's really important to them as well because what that does is it puts their whole life into perspective. 

"Whether they are six or 60, or three or 30, they can come to us and get some help and support if they need it and then we can look to empower them to go on to live the lives that they want to live."