Greta Thunberg: Autism, Asperger’s & Conflict Resolution

Dr Mike Talbot Articles, Dr Mike Talbot

I’ve been thinking over the weekend about last week’s visit of Greta Thunberg to Bristol, where she led the ‘School Strike for Climate’ protest. Around 20,000 people joined in – and that’s despite Friday’s pouring rain!

Now I’m not going to use this space to talk about climate change, the value or otherwise of direct action, whether we should have kids missing days at school, or the weather in Bristol. No – my interest is in conflict, the psychology of conflict behaviour, and how we can better resolve conflict by understanding the people who are involved in it.

Greta Thunberg has Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism that affects how she communicates and relates to other people. She calls it her ‘Superpower’, as it helps her to focus remorselessly on the core issues of climate change. And while she’s not always enjoyed being different – she suffered an eating disorder and depression for some time – she is also able to say that, “Being different is a gift. I don’t easily fall for lies, I can see through things”1.

US President Donald Trump has openly criticised and mocked Thunberg on several occasions

But Greta’s strength of view has brought her into conflict with many. Donald Trump called her ‘alarmist’ and mocked her for her age while at this year’s World Economic Forum, as well as sarcastically referring to her as a ‘very happy young girl’ and an ‘actress’. Michael Knowles, a Fox News guest, last year called her a ‘…mentally ill Swedish child’, something that Fox News later apologised for. Another Fox News employee, Laura Ingraham, even compared her to a character from Stephen King’s ‘Children of the Corn’. Unbelievably, Fox News are yet to apologise for this one!

I’ve been mediating in all sorts of settings for about 21 years now, dealing with situations where teams and individuals have conflict, often around an inability to manage their differences. And I’ve noticed how people with Asperger’s Syndrome, who are different along the same lines as Greta Thunberg, can often find themselves coming into conflict with others.

Take a hypothetical workplace, for example. Now imagine there’s an employee with Asperger’s Syndrome; someone who shares some of Greta’s differences, is prized for being intelligent and talented, for being able to develop a deep knowledge base in subjects that interest them, for being honest and free of prejudice, and for never being fickle or bitchy about other people. What a colleague!

But then some fellow workers find that person to be socially distant. The employee doesn’t join in with any banter or social activity, they get irritated when work discussions go off-topic or become chit-chat, they tidy their desk often, and they go to lunch at the same time to eat the same thing while sitting at the same chair each day. That person might become very agitated if a routine or process is changed without warning, sometimes even having a meltdown when their day or week is disrupted unexpectedly.

And then, within this example, let’s suppose there’s a critical incident in the office which ignites a conflict: it could be a re-structure, the room being reorganised, a piece of work that goes badly wrong, or even just an unhappy customer. One way or another, the colleague with Asperger’s ends up in a direct confrontation with an irritated colleague, gets distressed, and ends up dashing out of the room. A blame-game ensues and working relationships get pushed to the limit.

I have come across this situation on countless occasions. It’s a classic example of people failing to manage difference. But with the Asperger’s colleague, the added challenge is that people around that person don’t understand just what those differences are and can often misinterpret their traits and behaviours.

The National Autistic Society are the UK’s largest provider of specialist autism services.

To think about those differences, rather than deliver an essay here on what Asperger’s syndrome is all about, I would refer you to some excellent resources on the website of the National Autistic Society.

Suffice to say that all of the above behaviours are to do with reducing anxiety. Order and routine are important, as is being allowed to channel their intense interest into one task at a time. Office noise and chatter may be distracting, potentially anxiety-inducing and, for some, even painful.

Plus, a lot of casual interaction can be difficult for someone with Asperger’s. Their ability to join in or to enjoy neurotypical people’s chat can be severely limited by their difficulties in:
• Reading social cues
• Knowing when to speak and listen
• Understanding irony, sarcasm, figurative language, rhetorical questions, idioms or exaggeration

As a psychotherapist-turned-mediator, I try to be acutely sensitive to these kinds of needs, as well as to the needs of the neurotypical participants, when mediating a dispute like this. That helps me to support both sides to gain a better understanding of not just one another’s motivations, but also of the mutual impact of one another’s words and actions.

In the dialogue that then builds, people can use that understanding to work out a behavioural contract: one that allows everyone to be who they are and yet still to get the job done. That is when the resolution comes about. And with the good faith participation that we try and engender in mediation, resolution is entirely achievable.

People with Asperger’s are not weird, unsociable, ‘lacking empathy’ (seems to be a favourite myth, that one), or demanding. They (and ‘they’ are of course all different people) are just trying to do their best in working environments that are largely defined by the needs of neurotypical people.

I really value the intelligence, sharpness, acceptance, and focus of people with Asperger’s who I have worked with. Like Greta, such individuals can come into conflict with others who do not appreciate where their behaviours come from. The answer? Prize the person, understand the behaviours, unleash the Superpower!

1 Radio 4, Today Programme, April 2019