"Given the right circumstances, being different is a superpower," Greta Thunberg wrote on Twitter

By Rachel DeSantis
December 11, 2019 01:52 PM
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Teen climate change activist Greta Thunberg has Asperger’s, a diagnosis that an estimated 1 in 250 people will receive, according to the Asperger/Autism Network.

But the way she’s broken the mold surrounding the disorder is rare.

The Swedish 16 year old — who was named TIME’s Person of the Year on Wednesday, making her the youngest person to ever be given the honor — hasn’t shied away from flipping the script on her Asperger’s, at one point referring to it not as an obstacle but as her “superpower.”

“Being different is a good thing,” she told PEOPLE in October. “It’s something we should aspire to be.”

The pride with which she embraces her diagnosis has not been lost on others with Asperger’s, who now view Thunberg as a role model. Case in point: the trending Twitter hashtag “Autistics for Greta.”

“She is my SHERO!” user @hmcooperauthor wrote in September. “Such a fearless, articulate young woman. We might be considered ‘odd, weird, quirky….’ Or whatever adjectives that you prefer to insert but I’m convinced folks on the Autism Spectrum have superpowers that you all just don’t…”

User @ThruThePrismArt agreed, writing, “I’m on the spectrum. Anyone who underestimates Greta has NO IDEA how powerful the autistic brain is when set to a specific goal. The strength of being #ActuallyAutistic is LIMITLESS.”

“This is it!! This is what ASD is. Passion and unending dedication to a cause,” user @AmberOckerbloom added. “@GretaThunberg is a superhero to my daughter and all those on the spectrum. ASD is why she is who she is. How can that ever be something bad?!”

Regardless of why they’re paying attention to her, Thunberg told PEOPLE she knows she has many eyes watching her every move — and hopes to make the best of it.

“Right now, I have a lot of people listening to what I am saying, so I am using that platform to try to achieve a change,” she said.

Asperger’s is a type of autism that was adopted under the broader autism disorder umbrella in 2013, after previously being its own diagnosis.

The disorder is characterized by having difficulty with social interactions, restricted interests, a desire for sameness, and distinctive strengths, like “remarkable” focus and persistence, an aptitude for recognizing patterns, and attention to detail, according to Autism Speaks.

Daniel Reinhardt/picture alliance/Getty

Those strengths have served Thunberg well, as she explained on CBS This Morning that her Asperger’s actually helps her in seeing the world through a different lens.

“In some circumstances it can definitely be an advantage to have some kind of neurotypical diagnosis, to be neurodiverse, because that makes you different, that makes you think differently,” she said. “And especially in such a big crisis like this, when we need to think outside the box. We need to think outside our current system, we need people who think outside the box and who aren’t like everyone else.”

The interview built upon an earlier tweet she’d written, in which she dismissed critics insulting her “looks and differences,” and instead wrote that she considered “being different” 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,” she wrote.

Thunberg’s firm pride in her Asperger’s subsequently serves as inspiration for those dealing with the same thing, says Erica Remi, director of development for the Asperger/Autism Network.

“I think she’s a role model to everyone,” Remi told NBC News. “But I think for somebody who has Asperger’s or is on the autism spectrum, her ability to be honest and disclose it in such an empowering way is what’s inspirational. Greta is disclosing it in a way that she’s proud of.”

Greta Thunberg
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Collier Litel, a 23-year-old who has Asperger’s, told the outlet he wished that he’d had a figure like Thunberg to look up to as a child.

“It means a lot that she’s willingly embraced Asperger’s syndrome and talks about it openly. It creates a lot of awareness and destroys some stigmas,” he said. “I think it would have had a tremendous impact on what I viewed as possible not only for myself, but for cultivating relationships around me.”

Thunberg first rose to prominence last year after the school strikes she held to protest climate change caught on with younger people around the world.

“I think it’s very hopeful, all the young people who are a part of the climate change movement,” she previously told PEOPLE. “That keeps me going, to see that it actually has made a difference. Because there is no second option.”

In August, she sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in a zero-carbon emission boat to arrive in New York City for the U.N. Climate Action Summit, where she urged leaders to make much-needed changes for the sake of the planet.

Then in September, she led the largest climate strike of all time, with millions of people from more than 150 countries taking to the streets to demand that world leaders take immediate action to lower carbon emissions.

If we don’t do something about it now, she told PEOPLE, “It will only get worse. My hope is that we can fix it in time.”