Book review: Our House is on Fire

Greta Thunberg's autism is her superpower – the undiluted sense of urgency and outrage we need to save us from climate disaster, says Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild

Cover of the book Our House is on Fire, by Greta Thunberg

Our House is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis

Authors: Malena Ernman, Beata Ernman, Svante Thunberg and Greta Thunberg
Publisher: Allen Lane
Details: 288pp; £16.99
ISBN: 978-0241446737

Our House is on Fire is a heartfelt account of Greta Thunberg’s family’s journey through personal crisis and autism diagnoses to becoming world-leading climate activists, who unflinchingly speak truth to power, and who have rebranded autism a superpower.

It is written collectively by Greta, her parents and her sister. But it is the raw and anguished voice of her mother, Malena Ernman, that is the clearest. 

Unflinchingly and without self-pity, Malena chronicles the family’s path to building a better understanding of each other, and of the plight of our planet. 

Malena’s account of Greta’s route to her diagnosis of high-functioning autism is brutal, and one that many parents of autistic girls the world over will relate to.

Disappearing into darkness

Malena’s description of Greta struggling to cope in 5th grade is one that I recognise from my work as headteacher of the only school for autistic girls in the UK. It’s been reiterated in countless conversations I’ve had with concerned parents: “She was slowly disappearing into some kind of darkness and, little by little, bit by bit, she seemed to stop functioning.”

Like so many autistic girls and women, Greta developed an eating disorder. She restricted her diet to rice, avocado and gnocchi, and lost 10kg in two months. 

Malena’s fear and frustration in dealing with her daughter’s silence and restricted diet is palpable. With an intense clarity, Malena outlines the cajoling, begging, bartering and threatening to which parents of autistic girls resort. She conveys brilliantly that sense of powerlessness and bewilderment that so many parents have shared with me over the years. 

Malena sensed that her daughter and her family life were rapidly falling apart, and she did not know what to do about it. 

Shrinking the world

She is truthful, too, about how Greta’s difficulties shrank the family’s world: how they impacted on Greta’s sister, Beata, and on her parents’ capacity to work and function outside the family home. How life unravelled for them all: “Our children and work. That is all we can manage, Svante and I. Everything else has to be put aside.”

Greta’s mental health disintegrated as her anxiety became uncontrollable. She was selectively mute and unable to attend school, locked out of the world she wanted to be part of. 

This is the experience not only of Greta Thunberg but of countless autistic girls worldwide, who are hiding in plain sight, their autism too subtle and sociable to enable them to be diagnosed early. They are left trying their best to make sense of a world that frightens and confuses them.

Like Greta, a great many autistic girls try so hard to manage, to fit in, to do the right thing. They feel the need to conform, to hide their difficulties and to camouflage their autism. Without understanding and support, this leads to exhaustion, burnout and collapse. This is exactly what happened to Greta Thunberg.

Malena’s scathing view of the Swedish education system and its lack of support for autistic children and their families is heartfelt. She writes in Our House is on Fire of “invisible children” and “invisible families”, of “neighbours who complain and disappointed friends who stop calling”. 

Through documenting their story, Malena shines a light on the experiences of countless autistic girls and their families in Sweden and across the world, who struggle on alone: excluded and ignored.

Autism as superpower

Despite the difficult journey described by her mother in Our House is on Fire, Greta Thunberg has in so many ways redefined globally what autism is. Greta speaks about her autism as a superpower, and it is. 

Greta is quite simply fearless, unconstrained by hierarchy and received wisdom. She has used her amazing autistic focus and passion to bring global attention to the plight of the planet.

That is what makes her so unnervingly brilliant: she is just absolutely and unapologetically herself, calling the rest of the world out about the blindingly obvious climate emergency

She has no time for other people’s rules or niceties, because they are pointless, and they won’t solve the biggest problem confronting us today. 

Our House is on Fire documents Greta’s single-minded determination to take action on the biggest issue facing humanity, because she could not understand why no one else was shocked into action by our treatment of the planet. 

That ability to see things as they really are is absolutely an autistic superpower, as is the ability to think of a solution that no one else has come up with. Greta Thunberg’s characteristically autistic undiluted sense of urgency and outrage is what we all need, to wake us up from our wilful slumber.

Sarah Wild is headteacher at Limpsfield Grange School, a special school for autistic girls. She tweets as @Head_Limpsfield

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