A book I have been waiting literally years for comes out tomorrow. I’m speaking of Neurotribes (Amazon link), a book by Steve Silberman. I was lucky enough to obtain an advance copy to review. First let me say that there are a number of good reviews of Neurotribes by Steve Silberman already on the web. I highly recommend this one by Emily Willingham, which includes an interview with the author.
Having referred the reader to an excellent review, I’ll start here with a simple recommendation: buy the book. Or, at least, find a copy somewhere and read it.
If you are autistic, read the book. Silberman gives one of the most sensitive discussions of autism a non autistic can give.
If you are a parent or loved one of an autistic, read the book. If you are at the beginning of the journey, you may want to spend your precious extra time now on books that help you advocate (like special education focused books), but there will be a time when you want this book and will be grateful it’s on your shelf. If you’ve already gone through the advocacy learning curve, it’s a good book to get.
If you are a professional and think you understand how our present understanding of autism came about, you need to get this book. You will be surprised with what you didn’t know.
If you are not in the autism communities, Silberman is a wonderful writer and the book will give you a great read and you will learn a great deal about autism, autistic people and non-autistic people.
Neurotribes is a rather thick book on what seems a specialized subject and I worried at first that it wouldn’t be accessible or interesting to the average reader. But I was immediately struck by how beautifully Silberman’s writes. It is very accessible and entertaining to a general audience.
By now readers are probably wondering when I’m going to stop recommending the book and start reviewing it. Answer: now.
Autism is comprised of many very disparate topics and Neurtribes captures that, with each chapter touching on the various aspects of autism. First and foremost, autism is about people. Autistic people primarily. And Silberman approaches his book with a great sensitivity towards autistics. The book begins and ends with autistics. We start with Henry Cavendish a historical figure who was very likely autistic and ends with an epilogue about Mark Rimland, who has a key place in defining current perceptions of autism is. Mark’s father was autism researcher Bernard Rimland, who is best remembered for his role in defeating the idea that autism was caused by bad parenting. Mark was also one of the role models for the fictional character Raymond Babbit–Rain Man.
Silberman ends the book with a simple statement. And like many simple statements, many of us forget the message:
Midway through the journey of his life, Mark has the most precious and elusive thing that anyone can hope for. He is completely at home on earth.
Autism is a disability. It is a different operating system for the brain. It is a difference. It is so many thing. But all of us, autistic or not, autism parents or not, would do well to follow Mark’s example. Find our place.
Autism is also about non autistics. People who love autistics and people who research autism (and there’s a lot of overlap in those groups). And Silberman pulls all the various groups together in his telling of the story.
Silberman establishes himself as the foremost expert on the history of autism. How did Kanner and Asperger independently come up with the concept of autism (hint–they weren’t completely independent). Why did Asperger focus on the less clearly disabling aspects of autism (hint: he was at work at a time when disabled people in his country were rounded up and killed). We can go on and one, but these little snippets do not do justice to the depth that comes from the fact that Silberman has spent the past four years researching and writing this book.
The depth that Silberman brings to autism’s history (and present!) could easily become bogged down in the details. Neurotribes avoids this without sacrificing the detail. Autism is told through the people, people with personalities and people placed in the context of their time and culture. And that’s what makes this more than an example of thorough research but of skillful writing. We not only hear about Kanner and Asperger (the two credited with first describing autism), but of the people in their labs and the people who followed them. But mostly, of autistics. And not just autistic patients in clinics. We meet one of my personal favorite people, Leo Rosa (an autistic young man) and his mother Shannon. I met Shannon and Steve at about the same time, at IMFAR, an autism science conference, in 2011. We meet many more people and the book is influenced by literally hundreds of people, autistic and non, for whom there just wasn’t room in the book. By telling the stories through people, the book becomes a real read.
I realize that I have yet to discuss neurodiversity. The full title of the book after all is NeuroTribes, The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. Silberman introduces the topic thus (referring to his 2002 Wired article “The Geek Syndrome”)
One of the most promising developments since the publication of “The Geek Syndrome” has been the emergence of the concept of neurodiversity:the notion that conditions like autism, dyslexia, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) should be regarded as naturally occurring cognitive variations with distinctive strengths that have contributed to the evolution of technology and culture rather than mere checklists of deficits and dysfunctions. Though the spectrum model of autism and the concept of neurodiversity are widely believed to be products of our postmodern world, they turn out to be very old ideas, proposed by Hans Asperger in his first public lecture on autism in 1938.
and in another place, he states
Neurodiversity advocates propose that instead of viewing this gift as an error of nature—a puzzle to be solved and eliminated with techniques like prenatal testing and selective abortion—society should regard it as a valuable part of humanity’s genetic legacy while ameliorating the aspects of autism that can be profoundly disabling without adequate forms of support. They suggest that, instead of investing millions of dollars a year to uncover the causes of autism in the future, we should be helping autistic people and their families live happier, healthier, more productive, and more secure lives in the present.
One last note: autism’s history has some very low points. It can be very difficult to read about the Nazi eugenics program or the way some non-Nazi’s treated their autistic research subjects. I know that some, especially autistics, will find these sections painful to read.
That said, in case my recommendation was too subtle above: I recommend buying the book :)
Here are more reviews:
The Atlantic has Before Autism Had a Name.
The Guardian has: Neurotribes review – the evolution of our understanding of autism
The New York Times: ‘NeuroTribes,’ by Steve Silberman.
There are more if you search a site such as google news.
By Matt Carey
note: I have personally met the author of Neurotribes.