Winnipeg activist with autism 'really inspired' by Greta Thunberg

A Winnipeg activist who has Asperger's syndrome says he's inspired by the impassioned words of climate activist Greta Thunberg and her strength in the face of discrimination.

Atticus McIlraith has raised more than $70,000 for Winnipeg Harvest and has been fundraising for 6 years

Greta Thunberg speaks at the United Nations in New York City on Sept. 23, 2019, where world leaders are holding a summit on climate change. While the U.S. will not be participating, China and about 70 other countries are expected to make announcements concerning climate change. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A Winnipeg activist who has Asperger's syndrome says he's inspired by the impassioned words of climate activist Greta Thunberg, and her strength in the face of discrimination.

Thunberg, who also lives with Asperger's, is "really inspiring," Atticus McIlraith, 16, told CBC's Marcy Markusa on Information Radio Wednesday.

Thunberg gave an emotional address at the UN on Monday that went viral. The Swedish teen began a one-person climate protest in 2018 and since then has galvanized a huge following, including many school-aged children and adolescents.

She and other young activists filed a UN human rights complaint against five countries for jeopardizing their futures. 3:40

"I think it's good that we're eliminating some of the stigma around mental health and we can see certain things as helpful or just a part of living as opposed to a bad thing," McIlraith said.

That's exactly what Thunberg has said about her diagnosis. On Twitter, she wrote that what makes her different is actually a "superpower."

Thunberg also has been a target of criticism and discrimination.

At one point, an Australian columnist called her "deeply disturbed." A U.S. TV commentator also called her a "mentally ill Swedish child."

McIlraith said that kind of language does a lot of damage to people on the autism spectrum (Asperger's is on the high-functioning end of that spectrum), not to mention young people who are passionate about something.

"It's something that promotes distrust and fear," he said.

"I find it, actually, really appalling because not only does it increase the stigma around mental health, but it also increases the stigma around speaking out. It makes people fearful of saying what they believe in."

'We should have a say'

McIlraith isn't scared to say or do what he believes in.

He's raised more than $70,000 for Winnipeg Harvest over the last six years.

McIlraith's charitable spirit doesn't stop there. He's also donated his hair to children living with cancer.

Atticus McIlraith, right, shows off the hair he cut off in support of CancerCare Manitoba Foundation and Winnipeg Harvest in 2015. (CBC)

When he first started his activist work, McIlraith's mother, Sharon, said she thought his determination to help others was due in part to his Asperger's.

She also thinks it goes deeper than that.

"He was born with this," she said.

"He was gifted to us with this gift, and we as a family need to honour that this was what he was gifted with."

McIlraith is about to enter his seventh year of fundraising, and this year he plans to work directly with Winnipeg Harvest.

He'd like to be involved in more fundraising events and public speaking.

He hopes young people will glean some of Thunberg's strength and determination.

"As young people, we're starting to realize there are issues in the world and we want to be a part of these discussions," he said.

"I feel that we should have a say in what goes on in our government and what goes on in the world."

With files from Marcy Markusa