The Jellyby Syndrome

Greta Thunberg is a beautiful child. With her brunette braids and rounded face, she looks a little like a living Hummel figurine. I have heard many of my conservative friends and peers wish she would be as silent as one.

I do not believe Thunberg should be silent. I believe she is sending us all a message, but it is not her dour words of warning on climate change that deserve our attention. It is the exploitation of this troubled child’s gifts that we should heed, and we need to guard that our own children are not similarly used, nor swayed by Greta and other children like her who have been put in thrall by climate change activism.

Thunburg’s diagnosis with Asperger’s Syndrome places her on the higher end of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and she deserves our empathy and understanding. Many families, including my own, have children and adults who live with an ASD. I have great empathy for the struggles that Greta Thunberg and her family have confronted. But I have some serious questions about why she is now an oracle for the climate change movement.

There seems to be no real concern for the actual child and her future. I am concerned that her parents have exploited Greta’s disorder, enriching and empowering themselves by marketing her condition as that of a climate change mystic. Greta has no “superpowers” as her mother describes them. Greta is a typically atypical ASD-affected child. Her storied talents are not particularly special, and variants of her presentation appear in case studies done on other children and adults who live with autism. Many of these individuals show equally impressive talents.

Coping with Autism

Autism affects how the brain processes information. Children and adults who have the disorder cannot process sensory information appropriately, and they have difficulty with forming and maintaining social interactions. The list of medical terminology that a family must learn when a diagnosis of autism has been made is long and complicated. To understand Thunberg, it is necessary to know and understand the common terminology surrounding autism. Knowing and understanding that terminology helps decipher and demystify Greta’s behavior, in a way many, unfortunately, are not willing to do, fearful as they are of appearing to attack her, or suggest she is a fraud.

Stimming and perseveration are two of these important definitions not only for Greta, and other ASD children, but also for those who suffer from other types of developmental disorders.

Essentially, stimming helps an individual with autism cope with external sensations and emotions that may be causing them pain or anxiety. You may be familiar with hand-flapping, rocking, or spinning. Stimming can also be expressed with repetitive noises, or if the child is verbal, words or phrases. Researchers believe the repetitive actions create dopamine and endorphins that soothe the anxiety.

Occasionally, stimming can become destructive. Head banging and self-mutilation can occur. Greta suffered such destructive episodes, and they are described in the book Scenes from the Heart, written by her mother, Swedish Opera singer Malena Ernman. Stimming is disturbing and heartbreaking for a parent with an affected child to witness. It’s usually the manifestation of stimming that prompts the exhausting process of obtaining a diagnosis and finding an effective course of treatment. Specialists redirect stimming to more appropriate social outlets that will soothe a patient.

Sometimes, in this redirection, remarkable gifts are revealed. In my family, my young nephew was introduced to numbers and mathematics over his course of therapy. At the time he was not verbal. His ability to focus had him working at a young age on college-level calculus with amazing prowess. Solving complex problems both soothed and fascinated him, but his family is still trying to improve his social awareness and interactive skills to allow him to have a full and productive life.

While this treatment of stimming is not a cure, it can manifest in other ways. My nephew would become agitated and anxious if the numbers didn’t add up, and he would sometimes run away to find a number to ease his stress. I am not an expert; I make no claims to know Greta’s doctors. But I am fascinated that Greta’s anxious mind was soothed by science and scientific information.

Children, adults, and others with ASD or emotional difficulties associated with developmental disorders also perseverate. In medical jargon, this means they fixate on concerns that are either false or, while real, are blown out of proportion to the degree that a person cannot make appropriate decisions on their own behalf.

For example, I have a developmentally disabled sister with chronic illnesses. As such, she could no longer care for her cat, necessitating its placement with us. She became worried and agitated about my dogs hurting her cat. She repeated the same fears, with the same phrasing for hours. This was despite reminding her that we had both species living peaceably in our home, and that there was no cause for alarm. Long after we took possession of the cat, she needed to be reassured that the dogs had not attacked it.

Fanning Fears

I think it is within the realm of possibility that instead of mitigating her perseverative thoughts and anxieties, Greta’s parents and their allies are fanning her fears into an internal apocalyptic crisis, not only in their daughter’s head, but in the heads of the children and many adults who are convinced by her distorted sense of urgency and her earnest sincerity.

Greta’s abilities are not unique among children within the ASD community, but the team that orchestrates her appearances and statements are unusually effective in presenting her that way. Greta’s parents and their allies should be called into question, and many are looking closely at the Thunberg advisors and their entourage.

Yet, I think it’s important to bring our focus back to this remarkable child. Using Greta’s gifts to support the climate change agenda will not offer any realistic help to Greta, though undoubtedly it will provide for her and her family’s material needs for some time. Advocating ASD research, programs, and assistance for families affected by ASD, on the other hand, would reap real benefits to millions of people globally.

According to the Climate Policy Initiative, funding for global climate projects was estimated to be $463 billion in 2018. While Greta and her family increase the worry and anxiety of children and adults over a situation that they have no hope controlling, they could be utilizing Greta’s talents and focusing the family’s energies on a real and worthy cause.

Global funding for ASD research and development according to Autism Research Database was just over $364 million in 2016, the last year the database computed the figures. Considering that Autism Speaks estimates that 1-in-160 children will be born with an ASD, it is a more pressing need, one that will yield real and tangible results.

The kind of attention Greta Thunberg could bring could yield enormous social dividends, especially since many Third World nations have no programs for ASD children or adults at all. Thunburg’s parents resemble a modern version of Bleak House’s Mrs. Jellyby. Her children starve, and Mrs. Jellyby sends money to Africa to help feed the hungry.

Charles Dickens understood the absurdity of that over 150 years ago, but I guess Greta’s parents have decided that the absurdity is in their interest.

About Elizabeth Fortunato

Elizabeth Fortunato is a wife and mother from New York. She has a background in liberal arts and philosophy.

Photo: Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

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