Teen climate activist Greta Thunberg didn’t pull any punches during her impassioned speech at a United Nations (UN) meeting in New York on Monday, where she admonished the assembled leaders for “failing to act” on climate change science. A Fox News commentator, however, won’t be welcomed back to the network after he called Thunberg, who is autistic, “mentally ill.”
Thunberg, who sailed from her native Sweden to New York earlier in September, delivered a speech to the UN assembly, asking world leaders to increase their efforts to curb climate change. During a later Fox News segment where anchor Harris Faulkner facilitated comments between two hosts to discuss Thunberg’s speech, guest and podcast host Michael Knowles said Thunberg was a “mentally ill Swedish child.”
“Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.”
My full speech in United Nations General Assembly. #howdareyou https://t.co/eKZXDqTAcP
— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) September 23, 2019
Thunberg, who is 16 years old, is not new to bullying from grown adults who have made fun of her authentic autistic expressions, generated a conspiracy theory that Thunberg is exploited by “climate panic” adults with questionable motives or flat out discredit Thunberg on the basis of her identity as a teenager, girl or autistic.
Pundit Christopher Hahn, who also joined the Fox News segment, immediately pushed back against Knowles’ mental illness comment, saying, “You’re a grown man and you’re attacking a child — shame on you.”
Knowles went on to claim Thunberg is “being exploited by her parents and by the international left,” before doubling down on his mental illness comments. He added Thunberg has “many mental illnesses,” citing depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Knowles isn’t the first person to equate autism with a mental illness. “Autism spectrum disorder” is included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the guide mental health professionals use to diagnose mental illness. Autism is included under the neurodevelopmental disorders category. Also included in this section of the DSM is intellectual disabilities, developmental delays and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Despite its inclusion in the DSM and continued use of the word “disorder,” autism is not a mental illness or a disorder at all — it’s a neurodiverse way of showing up in the world that’s different, not wrong. Autism requires acceptance, not a “cure.” Thunberg is open about being on the autism spectrum, and she doesn’t hide her authentic autistic identity, which she explained in a Twitter thread in August:
I have Aspergers and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And – given the right circumstances- being different is a superpower. I’m not public about my diagnosis to ‘hide’ behind it, but because I know many ignorant people still see it as an ‘illness,’ or something negative. And believe me, my diagnosis has limited me before. Before I started school striking I had no energy, no friends and I didn’t speak to anyone. I just sat alone at home, with an eating disorder. All of that is gone now, since I have found a meaning, in a world that sometimes seems shallow and meaningless to so many people.
Before I started school striking I had no energy, no friends and I didn’t speak to anyone. I just sat alone at home, with an eating disorder.
All of that is gone now, since I have found a meaning, in a world that sometimes seems shallow and meaningless to so many people.
— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) August 31, 2019
It’s also worth noting there is nothing wrong with being diagnosed with a mental illness, and some advocates even question whether or not certain mental health conditions should also be considered from a neurodiversity perspective. However, mental health issues like depression or anxiety cause distressing symptoms directly related to the illness itself. Autistic people experience distress primarily because of stigma, a lack of support and damaging practices that require autistic people to “mask” or hide their autistic traits — external factors imposed on autistic people as opposed to caused by autism itself.
Because of this, people on the spectrum are more likely to experience mental health issues (separate from an autism diagnosis). People on the spectrum have a higher risk of suicidal thoughts as well as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Mighty contributor Hilary K. explained why in their article, “The Connection Between Autism and Mental Health“:
Autistics often experience trauma from an array of situations and circumstances in which we are dehumanized, physically and psychologically abused, marginalized in our extended families, relationships, communities, educational institutions, justice system and medical care. While autism is not a mental illness, most autistics will need mental health support at some point in our life, or on a regular basis. Removing this stigma is the first step to improved care.
Ok, I'm not going to weigh in on the whole Greta Thunberg debate, but I'll say this:
AUTISM IS NOT A FUCKING MENTAL ILLNESS AND IF YOU KEEP SAYING THAT I WILL PERSONALLY COME TO YOUR DOOR AND SLAP YOU IN YOUR STUPID FACE
— Marianne Díaz Hernández (@mariannedh) September 24, 2019
Other advocates pointed out on social media that labeling women in particular who challenge existing social structures as “mentally ill” has long been a way to silence people, harnessing the stigma of mental health to discredit people who are outspoken about change. Others said the fact “mental illness” can be weaponized as an insult highlights negative attitudes about mental health are still pervasive.
“Suggesting that Greta is ‘mentally ill,’ because she is dissatisfied with the crap world built by men reminds me of how they gave women of my mother’s generations giant tranquilizers when they were depressed about being housewives in the 60s. Drug the dissatisfaction out of ’em,” wrote Emily Nunn on Twitter.
Suggesting that Greta is "mentally ill," because she is dissatisfied with the crap world built by men reminds me of how they gave women of my mother's generations giant tranquilizers when they were depressed about being housewives in the 60s. Drug the dissatisfaction out of 'em.
— emily nunn (@EmilyRNunn) September 24, 2019
So it seems the new thing is to suggest that @GretaThunberg has a "mental illness" because she has Aspergers Syndrome.
— Rick O'Shea (@rickoshea) September 24, 2019
Right wing activists going after Greta Thunberg now saying that adults are abusing her "mental illness" for personal gain.
Greta is an intelligent, passionate and informed human being. She is more than a diagnosis. Reducing her to this is spiteful and transparent.
— Dr Benjamin Janaway ???? (@drjanaway) August 31, 2019
In response to Knowles’ comments during the Fox News segment, the network apologized to Thunberg and its viewers. The Hollywood Reporter noted segment anchor Harris did not intervene or challenge Knowles’ comment on air.
“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,” Fox News said in a statement. Fox also told reporter Jeremy Barr the network had no plans of allowing Knowles back on air.
In addition to condemning his comments about Greta Thunberg as “disgraceful,” Fox News told me that it has “no plans” to book Michael Knowles again as a guest.
— Jeremy Barr (@jeremymbarr) September 24, 2019
Julia Bascom, executive director of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, reiterated to The Hollywood Reporter that attacks on the mental health or cognitive abilities of activists like Thunberg are nothing new and called out the adults bullying Thunberg.
“It’s absolutely unconscionable to attack someone for their disability, especially when that person is a child,” said Bascom. “History is full of autistic people and people with other cognitive disabilities who were and are compelling, credible activists and leaders. Greta is a part of that tradition, and our community is lucky to have her. Period.”