logo

Find AuSM on Facebook  twitterbird YouTubeSubscribe to our RSS feed 

Sep
14

Book Review: NeuroTribes

neurotribesBook Review: NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman with a Foreword by Oliver Sacks

Review by Robert Waltz, AuSM member

When history repeats itself, the second time is usually even less fun than the first time. Which makes it especially enjoyable to find someone willing to give history a new look.

The historian who does that is Steve Silberman, and the book is "Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity."

neurotribes

Book Review: NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman with a Foreword by Oliver Sacks

Review by Robert Waltz, AuSM member

When history repeats itself, the second time is usually even less fun than the first time. Which makes it especially enjoyable to find someone willing to give history a new look.

The historian who does that is Steve Silberman, and the book is "Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity."

This book does not start in the usual place in the history of autism, with Leo Kanner, usually credited with first describing autism. Instead, it starts with the great experimental physicist Henry Cavendish -- a man who produced results generations ahead of his time, but whose social life was dramatically affected by his personal quirks. Quirks which, were he to present himself at AuSM today, would surely earn him a diagnosis of autism.

Then the scene shifts, to the practice of Hans Asperger. Asperger saw a whole spectrum of clients, and recognized that the clients fell on a spectrum. The problem was that he lived in Nazi-controlled Austria, and knew that any children deemed to be "unfit" would not be allowed to live. Instead of describing the autism spectrum, he described the most fit and competent of his patients -- the ones with the special skills he hoped the Nazis would value.

The Germans had little more use for Asperger than they had for his clients; eventually he was forced in the army medical service. So it was left to Leo Kanner, who had fled to the United States and who worked with some of Asperger's former colleagues, to publish the papers that put autism "on the map."

Kanner was a much more complex character than the generous, open-minded Asperger. He made real attempts to save Jews from the Holocaust, and supported other good causes, but he was rigid in defining autism, and allowed a lot of bad ideas to propagate. He was determined take ownership of autism as "his" condition. Those who came after, such as Bruno Bettelheim, were worse, convinced that autism was the fault of the “victims'” parents.

The middle chapters of the book, in which these Freudian-style therapists took out their errors on the poor people with autism -- in this case, truly "victims" -- are among the least pleasant in the text. It was Lorna Wing, herself the mother of an autistic child, who began to change that. While seeking to change minds about people with autism, she unearthed Hans Asperger's work, and started to demonstrate the autism spectrum. With the fourth edition of the American Psychiatric Association's "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual," "Asperger's Syndrome" was recognized. In the fifth edition, "Asperger's" went away, to be replaced by the Autism Spectrum. Although the name has changed to one Kanner coined, the spectrum reflect Asperger's and Wing's idea of the condition, not Kanner's.

To show this, author Silberman tells the stories of many people whose lives have been touched by the condition, either by having autism themselves or by being related to someone who does. Chances are that most of us will see reflections of ourselves in one or more of these people. Some of these stories are perhaps not strictly necessary to the purpose of the book, but they help to humanize and explain autism.

As the understanding of the spectrum has changed, and people with autism have been given more appropriate support, we've seen more and more of the benefits of autism as well as the costs -- the benefits that made Henry Cavendish, for instance, a great physicist, or that make Temple Grandin who she is. Silberman doesn't supply a list of great people with autism, but we all know that people with ASD have done great things in the past.

The final few chapters are devoted to how people with ASD are starting to find each other and put those gifts to work. It is, in a sense, an open-ended book, since much still needs to be done. But there are ideas here for all of us. It isn't a perfect book -- there really were parts that made me uncomfortable (I hate it when people hurt other people). And there are times when Silberman doesn't quite seem to understand my sort of autism, at least (he is, after all, a neurotypical). But "Neurotribes" is a detailed, accurate, and highly sympathetic history of our understanding of autism, with a hint of a program for the future. Most of the reviews of this book have been highly favorable. It deserves that favor. There are monotonously many books out there about autism. This is one of the few about the place people with autism have in society.

Is this book meant for neurotypicals or for people with ASD? First and foremost, I think, for neurotypicals. I, at least, didn't have any need for the chapters on computer geeks and science fiction fans. Presumably those parts are in there to let neurotypicals understand what people with ASD can be like. But I think there is much in here for those with autism, too. First, this is a good history of how the diagnosis came into being, making a strong case that it is the name of Hans Asperger, not Leo Kanner, that we should remember. Second, it reminds those of us with ASD how lucky we are to be living today, when we are given at least some respect and support, rather than fifty years ago, when we were institutionalized, punished, and brutalized, while our parents were accused of causing the whole thing. And, third, the book reminds us of all the ways people with autism are now working together to make ourselves part of society. Not same-old parts of society, but unique parts of society. If you’re interested in learning why you should pay more attention to people with autism, this is the book for you.