I am part of Autistic Women and Nonbinary People With “Weird” Facial Expressions in Solidarity With Greta. This is not an official group — I just made it up, but god knows our numbers are legion.
I am in a suburban Toledo, Ohio, coffee shop sipping my first espresso of the day when I see the news about Greta Thunberg. I kind of stand out in this aggressively perky coffeeshop (though they do have these sensory-friendly armchairs you can kind of hide inside, and you bet I made a beeline for one of those). I am a racially ambiguous, light-brown-skinned middle-aged femme with greying dark brown and lavender curly hair on one side of my head (no hair on the other side), holding a cane and wearing a tube top, a gold sequined skirt and the pair of leopard print and neon high tops that I’ve been wearing almost every day during my last three months of brand new Screaming-Jesus-This-Sucks levels of chronic pain. But most of all, I am not smiling, although I am lightly “masking” (an autistic term for faking neurotypicality) because I’m surrounded by very normal-looking white people, and I have a lifetime of practice toning down how weird I am in public in order to be safe. But, as years of me looking “weird” and being unable to smile on command will attest, I still have Resting Autism Face. And according to the news, so does Greta Thunberg.
The news I see about Greta is this: After her 15-day no-carbon journey across the Atlantic, after she worked as one of the leaders of the global Climate Strike (along with many Black, Indigenous, Asian/Pacific Islander and Latinx young climate activists), and after her series of can-you-stop-being-capitalists-and-lying-to-us speeches to the UN and the world, the abled carbon patriarchs have come for Greta Thunberg.
People have attacked Greta before, casting her autism in familiar tropes of pathology. But in the last few days since the climate strike and her speech at the UN, they’ve upped their abuse. Michael Knowles of Fox News called her “a mentally ill Swedish child” on Monday. She looks “deeply disturbed,” said Andrew Bolt of the Australian Herald Sun. Laura Ingraham, the Fox News host, called Thunberg’s UN speech “chilling” and ran a clip of Children of the Corn, the 1984 horror movie where children in a farming community murder adults, saying, “I can’t wait for Children of the Climate.” Conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza compared her “look” to that of Nazi youth in a series of Twitter posts.
I knew this would happen. Greta is shielded some by her white Northern European-ness from these ableist attacks. But she doesn’t smile. She looks aghast. When speaking about the climate crisis, she has a curled lip and a stony facial expression. Her face says, “What the fuck is your problem? Take action.” As my friend said, “Her face said how I felt.” To ableists, Greta’s autistic face conjures ableist tropes of disability and autism being associated with serial killers.
People might not be able to clearly name the attacks on Greta as a confluence of ableism and sexism and ageism. But that is what they are. Hatred of autistic people has a deeply rooted ableist history, spanning from the U.S. “ugly laws” of the 1860s to the 1970s. For example, one 1881 ordinance made it illegal for “any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object … [to] expose himself or herself to public view.” Emerging from this same history is the modern-day insistence on punishments for stimming that are promoted by much contemporary “treatment” of autistic youth.
As Black disability justice advocate Talila A. Lewis — the volunteer director of Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of Deaf Communities and creator of the #DisabilitySolidarity hashtag — recently said, “We must understand that disability has everything to do with societally constructed ideas of normalcy, intelligence, excellence, productivity, good looks, and very little (often nothing) to do with actual dis/abilities.”
Greta has the sense of moral clarity and laser focus that is one of the things I love and value about myself and other autistic people. We’re different — I’m brown, she’s white, and I feel more political commonality with Black and Brown young climate activists like Isra Hirsi and Autumn Peltier who are making connections between colonialism, racism and climate justice. But when I look at Greta’s unsmiling, outraged face, I feel a sense of autistic intimacy.
But women are supposed to smile and be polite, don’t you know? Women and non-cis guys are supposed to be gracious and gentle and apologize and make eye contact. Autistic women and non-cis guys are often under even more pressure to keep up with traditional, neurotypical gender standards. We are not supposed to just say what the fuck we believe, call people out, and not smile doing it. We are not supposed to be autistic in public, without apology, let alone have any kind of radical politics. But Greta is.
I don’t know what kind of relationship Thunberg has to autistic communities, if any. But I do know that she is part of a new generation of autistic youth who have come of age since those of us who are #ActuallyAutistic started organizing, fighting to take the advocacy wheel away from the “autism parents” who think we’re the worst thing that happened to their marriage. In our struggle we face parents who try to bleach the weird out of us (literally), hate groups like Autism Speaks who also want to “cure” us and are made up of exactly zero autistic people, and the medical-industrial complex, which on a good day might contain some helpful people but mostly wants to torture us.
I believe that Greta’s ability to tweet #Aspiepower and frame her autism as a superpower is a product of brave-ass autistic women and nonbinary people who have been speaking about our lives and demanding an end to the ableist violence of a world that wants us ashamed and self-hating rather than proudly ourselves and able to access housing, meaningful work (or the right not to work), safety from police murder and medical violence – and love, respect and community, as we are.
I don’t believe like some that autistic people are some new “supergroup” that will save the world. I think we’ve always been here. But I do think our clarity, moral outrage, allergy to bullshit and refusal to go along are some of the many disabled skills that can be part of saving the world.
This piece isn’t mostly aimed at the abled and the normative. It’s mostly a love letter to other autistics with weird faces. I love us. I’d rather have a weird and unsmiling facial expression in the face of the possible end of the world than be a climate change denier with my head up my ass.
I propose an alliance of Resting Bitch Face and Resting Autistic Face people (and the many of us who are just the same.) We have the world to win.