It would not have escaped anyone’s attention that the Greta Thunberg phenomenon has hit new heights following the 16-year-old climate activist’s oceangoing voyage to New York.

During her stateside visit, Thunberg commanded the media agenda as figurehead of a series of climate strikes and protests around the world, and delivered a no-holds-barred speech to the United Nations in which she castigated older political generations for not doing enough to protect the planet.

Just as crucially, she also took time to speak about her own identity as a neurodiverse individual, telling hosts of CBS This Morning: “In some circumstances, it can definitely be an advantage to have some kind of neuroatypical diagnosis – to be neurodiverse – because that makes you different, that makes you think differently. And especially in such a big crisis like [climate change], 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.” [1]

Exploring a storm of controversy that erupted around negative Fox News coverage of Thunberg’s UN appearance – wherein a guest on the channel described the activist as a “mentally ill, Swedish child” – The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Julia Bascom, executive director of US group the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network. “History is full of autistic people, and people with other cognitive disabilities, who were and are compelling, credible activists and leaders,” she said. “Greta is a part of that tradition, and our community is lucky to have her. Period.” [2]

In the same piece, Asperger/Autism Network (AANE) executive director Dania Jekel pointed out: “Autism is not an illness and, in fact, we consider neurodiversity to be something worth celebrating. At AANE, we know that individuals on the autism spectrum can use their strengths to make outstanding contributions to society because we see it every day with our community members. There are many people like Greta in our world, and we hope that her transparency about her Asperger diagnosis will help promote understanding and acceptance of individuals on the autism spectrum.”

On that very point, in its own examination of Thunberg’s influence, Marketwatch highlighted a series of initiatives that major corporates have undertaken to grow their ranks of neurodiverse employees [3] – for example:

  • a neurodiversity drive at EY that has so far placed 60 staff in four US cities;
  • SAP’s Autism at Work programme, with 160 staff in 13 countries, and
  • a separate scheme at JP Morgan Chase, also called Autism at Work, with 140 people in eight countries – and ambitions to have 300 staff in 14 territories by 2020.

To what extent could Thunberg’s presence on the world stage help to boost the number of neurodiversity programmes in operation – and what should leaders learn from the breakthroughs that Thunberg has achieved as a public figure?

The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Among underrepresented groups, there are many differences of experience, but also many similarities. Greta Thunberg’s experience shows the lengths to which people will go to silence diverse voices that are saying something different, or ranging outside the dominant discourse.”

She notes: “Anyone who is high-profiling difference and challenging preconceptions is, at some point, going to get flak. But at the same time, what a terrific role model Thunberg represents for other neurodiverse individuals. What a potent reminder for companies to look at the scope and effectiveness of their inclusivity policies. And what a powerful demonstration of the fact that difference brings organisations so many benefits. Not only does it galvanise innovation – it also enables us to be more representative of the customers we’re eager to engage, via the staff we should be aiming to attract and retain.”

Cooper adds: “There doesn’t seem to be any rational argument against inclusion. Yet all too often, we seem to get stuck on this knee-jerk reflex of wanting to silence challenging voices. In Thunberg’s case, that reflex has operated on a hair-trigger – but that instinct is unhelpful. It constrains our ability to see the advantages of difference in the round, when what we should be doing is opening up a lot more room to understand those strengths.”

For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on appreciating diversity

Source refs: [1] [2] [3]

Image of Greta Thunberg courtesy of Daniele COSSU, via Shutterstock.

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