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Autism

Why Autism Might Not Make You a Better Environmentalist

Scientists attempt to explain Greta Thunberg's environmentalist superpowers.

Key points

  • Greta Thunberg credits her autism with her interest in activism.
  • People with autism are less likely to engage in pro-environmental action.
  • Thunberg might be an exception.

The climate activist Greta Thunberg has credited her autism with giving her the ability to stay focused on the climate emergency. She once Tweeted: “I have Aspergers and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And, given the right circumstances, being different is a superpower.”

Greta Thunberg on Twitter
Greta's Tweet about autism superpowers
Source: Greta Thunberg on Twitter

This sentiment sparked public interest in the idea that having autism predisposes people to care more deeply about the environment, and thus be more likely to engage in activism. However, researchers with the universities of Bath, Cardiff, Essex, and King's College London investigated this idea and found that the opposite might be true. Autism might make it more difficult for people to engage in pro-environmental behavior.

In a recent article published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, researchers found that "autistic traits were neither predictive of pro-environmental attitudes nor climate change belief" and that "autistic traits were associated with engagement in fewer pro-environmental behaviors."

Co-author of the study Punit Shah, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Bath, said in a press release, "Intuitively, the speculation between autism and environmentalism has resonated with the public, including autistic adults who helped co-produce our new research. We also know from research that interests in animals, nature, and the environment, are widely reported by autistic individuals, which enhances their subjective well-being and life satisfaction. However, our findings show the link between autism and environmentalism is not clear cut."

Pro-environmentalism and autism

For this study, pro-environmental attitudes were measured using the New Ecological Paradigm scale, where people are asked to rate their level of agreement with a number of statements including: "We are approaching the limit of the number of people the Earth can support," and "Humans are seriously abusing the environment."

Pro-environmental behaviors were measured using a scale that "assessed participants’ engagement in personal, domestic pro-environmental behaviors to help prevent climate change." This included behaviors such as buying environmentally friendly products, reducing travel, recycling, eating locally grown food, or joining public demonstrations or protests supporting environmental protection.

A lack of engagement in pro-environmental behaviors for those with autism is possibly a result of the hallmark traits of autism, including sensory sensitives (making it difficult to participate in crowded, loud climate rallies), and resistance to change (making it difficult to, for example, switch to a vegetarian or locally grown food diet or take public transportation to attend a climate rally).

Explaining Greta

Thunberg might then be an exception. But that doesn't mean that her autism is not involved in maintaining her superhuman ability to repeat her climate message day in and day out for years at a time in the face of global inaction. Does autism allow Greta to stay focused on the problem of climate change longer than a neurotypical adult? Possibly. Hyperfocus, described as "the perpetual and unrelenting state of intense single-minded concentration fixated on one thought pattern at a time, to the exclusion of everything else," is one of the defining characteristics of autism.

Or perhaps her emotional sensitivity gives her a greater-than-average emotional response when imagining a distant future in which the Earth is uninhabitable for humans due to climate change. She suggested as much in her speech to the UN in 2019 when she said:

"I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is."

Unfortunately, there is not enough research in this area to say for certain what the relationship is between autistic traits and environmental activism. This study suggests that autistic traits do not generate pro-environmental feelings, but they might, nonetheless, be at the heart of Greta's superpowers.

If environmental messages are less likely to resonate with people with autism, as this study suggests, then this is a problem we need to address. The researchers argue that people with autism (as well anxiety and neurodevelopmental or mental health conditions) might need more support when it comes to nudging them to care about the environment.

"We need to think harder about supporting people to manage stress and mental health difficulties, which might then give them the cognitive resources to direct towards engaging in green behaviors," said lead author Emily Taylor. "Mental health and environmental science are often thought about separately, but greater coherence—in terms of research and policy—will be crucial for both people's mental well-being and the environment."

References

Taylor, E. C., Livingston, L. A., Callan, M. J., Hanel, P. H., & Shah, P. (2021). Do autistic traits predict pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors, and climate change belief?. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 76, 101648.

Rowland, D. (2020). Differential diagnosis of autism: a causal analysis. J Neurol Neurophysiol, 1

Dunlap, Riley E.; Van Liere, Kent D.; Mertig, Angela G.; & Jones, Robert Emmet. (2000). Measuring endorsement of the new eco-
logical paradigm: A revised NEP scale. Journal of Social Issues, 56(3), 425–442.

Bain, P. G., Milfont, T. L., Kashima, Y., Bilewicz, M., Doron, G., Garðarsdóttir, R. B., ... & Saviolidis, N. M. (2016). Co-benefits of addressing climate change can motivate action around the world. Nature climate change, 6(2), 154-157.

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