Existential Rebellion: challenging stigma in a moment of planetary crisis

By becoming a global icon for resistance to climate change, Greta Thunberg has put a spotlight on prejudice against people living with mental disabilities.  Diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, Thunberg knows what it is to be on the margins of society and to feel isolated and alone.  “Sometimes it makes me a bit different from the norm,” she says.  

Social awkwardness and being fixated on a particular issue or cause are common in people with a disability that falls within Autism Spectrum Disorder. 

Thunberg has referred to people who stigmatise her as ‘haters’ who have ‘nowhere left to go’.

“She challenges us to see that despite her condition, she still has an opportunity to make a difference and to find meaning in life.” Logotherapist Dr Alphonse Kanda said.  “She is saying: Here I am, I have this condition, yes, but I have something to do and I am doing it. She throws a disturbing existential challenge at people who are considered to be ‘normal’ Kanda suggested.  “She is disrupting the social order.”

Thunberg doesn’t fit the glamorous, made-up mould the Western world expects of girls her age. She is just herself and she communicates in the way she knows how to communicate.

People are judged on social skills as opposed to integrity, Dr. Leslie Robertson from Wits Psychiatry said.  “So when somebody comes in who has a disability such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, even if they are highly intelligent and passionate, we write them off as being different, and we feel we are justified in dismissing what they say. At worst, we shun, isolate, and condemn them,” Robertson said. 

“I believe that in the Middle Ages, these were the witches who were burnt at the stake.  Today, in some African societies, people with this condition are seen as bewitched”.

“Even in psychiatry, we misdiagnose and we stigmatise this population group,” Robertson said.  They are given anti-psychotic drugs which marginalise them and make them know they are different.

Thunberg challenges the world to acknowledge that people with mental disabilities have the intelligence, insight, and vision our ravaged planet needs.

A version of this first appeared in Sunday Times Lifestyle online

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


3 Responses

  1. Spot on, Melody. For me, Dr Robertson’s comment about people being judged on social skills as opposed to integrity is what’s wrong with much of the world. What does it help, after all, if you’ve got the social skill to talk yourself out of a sticky situation, but you don’t have the backbone to face the consequences of what you did to get stuck in the first place. Accountability… where is South Africa today?

  2. I understand this completely. I have a son who has Asperger’s Syndrome and he has been treated as an outcast for much of his life. He is now 42.
    He is even rejected by family members as for a long time he was socially inept and said inappropriate things
    When he was little Asperger’s Syndrome was virtually unknown. We were told that he had Minimal Brain Damage (MBD). He was in a school for cerebral palsied children until Std 1 (Grade 3).
    Up to 50% of people are never diagnosed.
    He is actually a very compassionate person, highly intelligent and most interesting to talk to.

  3. Thank you for this important article, Melody. It resonates strongly with me. I have a son who was written off as ineducable when he was barely five. The only ‘school’ that would accept him did nothing to challenge him so I taught him to read and write and speak. I believe that even though there has been much progress in the understanding of learning and social disabilities, the focus is still on what a person cannot do rather than on that person’s unique abilities and make-up. We were fortunate in that our son, who is now an adult, is with a wonderful care organization in the UK whose guiding principle is to see the person, not the disability.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *