Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has spoken openly about her Asperger’s syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder while calling on governments to act on climate change.
She is not the only environmental activist to talk about being neurodivergent (having a neurological disease or disability). Thunberg has described it as her “superpower.”
In the UK, naturalists Chris Packham and Dara McCulty are both discussing autism. Packham said it had been “hugely beneficial” to his own career.
For my doctoral research, I interviewed 23 youth activists, conservationists and environmentalists to explore the link between nature experiences and mental health in an era of climate breakdown. My findings shed light on the motivations and intentions of neurodiverse people working in the environmental protection field, as well as those drawn to climate change activism.
Autistic people have much to offer environmental activists promoting action on climate change
Many of my participants had been diagnosed with mental health, psychiatric, or neurological conditions such as autism, ADHD, and bipolar disorder. They reported finding community and a sense of purpose through the environmental activist movement and connection to nature.
Characteristics of autism
In a recent BBC documentary about his life with autism, Mr Packham said some of the campaigners he works with are “one or the other”. [autistic] Others may have autistic traits combined with a sense of injustice and a deep-seated desire to communicate the absolute truth. ”
This can be an asset in turbulent times, he said. “People with autism have much to offer during a crisis. Sometimes clear thinking and clear speech can be very beneficial.”
The association between autistic traits and environmentalism is still being studied. Some research suggests that mental health conditions can be a barrier to environmental action, for example due to high costs or difficulty maintaining lifestyle changes. Masu.
However, for many neurodivergent people, the condition can promote hyperactivity. As a neurodivergent therapist and researcher, I find that many of the people I work with are sensitive to external events and situations. People with autism and ADHD often report experiencing the world more intensely than people who are considered neurotypical.
Some say this heightened sensitivity also applies to pain, suffering, and injustice, and that we are more likely to take action to deal with the discomfort we experience.as
As one of the young activists I interviewed said:
“I have depression and mental health issues, some of which are caused by the climate…I just really want to solve this problem…day As the days go by, I feel more and more, I don’t know, sometimes hopeless. But I still want to strike.”
Certain types of autism involve hyper-obsession, or areas of specialized knowledge and interests that border on obsessive. Many neurodivergent people are knowledgeable and want to learn everything about a subject. Applying this to science and climate can increase passion for the activity.
People with autism often have difficulty complying with and understanding social and cultural norms. This increases the risk of being socially ridiculed and being called rude or antisocial. Along with this is often an inability to understand or respect hierarchy and authority. These traits can also be an asset in activism, where directly criticizing or challenging those in power or political institutions can be daunting.
Many neurodivergent people strongly believe in equality and fairness and reject systems that do not treat all people equally.
People on this spectrum can experience extreme psychological and emotional distress when demands are placed on them that they do not understand or agree to. At school, neurodivergent children require special support to comply with the requirements of the educational system.
Many people on the autism spectrum have high levels of empathy and compassion for those who are suffering or at risk. Similarly, many environmentalists have an unwavering belief and desire to live a good life and believe in equality and fairness. For both groups, a strong sense of justice motivates their lives and actions.
combating climate anxiety
As awareness of neural divergence increases, more people, especially children, are being diagnosed with conditions such as autism and ADHD. In Northern Ireland, where I conducted my research, the proportion of school-age children diagnosed with autism increased from 1.2 per cent in 2009 to 4.5 per cent in 2021.
Neurodivergent people are often more vulnerable and more likely to experience mental illness. This may include social anxiety, depression, climate anxiety, and more.
The people I spoke to in the study showed that activity can be an antidote to pain, discomfort, and feelings of hopelessness. Activism and environmentalism have been essential coping mechanisms for people who care about the environment and the non-human world. It made people feel less helpless and gave them a sense of purpose and hope for the future.
As Thunberg herself has said, activism is a way to stay energized in a time of climate change and ecological collapse.
Ms. Thunberg gained international recognition and acclaim for her work. Like her, many other neurodivergent climate change activists act not for fame but because they have a strong sense of justice and believe it’s the right thing to do.
We can all learn from the many young neurodivergent people who strive to make the world a better place despite (or perhaps because of) their conditions.
The author is an early career researcher and ecotherapist at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Republished from The Conversation
EOS, published at dawn on November 5, 2023