Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity


Steve Silberman’s interest in autism was first aroused by a chance encounter with two residents of Silicon Valley who both mentioned they had autistic daughters

NeurotribesA regular contributor to Wired magazine, which charts the impact of the digital revolution, he smelt a human-interest story suited to its readers. The end result was ‘The Geek Syndrome’ published in 2001, which highlighted the ‘surge’ of autism diagnoses in California.

Silicon Valley, Silberman argued, was a magnet for those with high functioning autism: ‘Clumsy and easily overwhelmed in the physical world, autistic minds soar in the virtual realms of mathematics, symbols, and code.’ More significantly he suggested ‘assortative mating’ might have a role in the sharp rise in the number of autistic children being born to Silicon Valley employees: ‘At clinics and schools in the Valley, the observation that most parents of autistic kids are engineers and programmers who themselves display autistic behavior is not news.’

Silberman says the article provoked more responses than any other he has written and that in the intervening period he frequently thought he should return to the topic and delve deeper. He did and the fruit of his efforts is this book described by Oliver Sacks in his Foreword as ‘a sweeping and penetrating history…presented with a rare sympathy and sensitivity’. Accolades followed and earlier this month Neurotribes scooped its biggest prize to date: the 2015 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. It is the first popular science title to win the prize in its 17-year history.

So are the plaudits justified? I would say, Yes. True not all the ground covered is new – see, for instance, Adam Feinstein’s A History of Autism: Conversations with the Pioneers – but Neurotribes excels on a number of fronts.

First, it is a long but easy read. Silberman understands that at the heart of the story of autism are people: those who struggled to understand it; those who fought for the services their children needed; those diagnosed with ASD; and those who exhibited many of the telling characteristics but who never knew what it was that set them apart. Through meticulous research and finely drawn profiles he manages to connect the reader to each and every one.

Second, there are heroes and villains. In his Acknowledgements Silberman singles out the late Lorna Wing and the Front matter includes a rare photo of Hans Asperger working with children at the University of Vienna in the 1930s. Rather less sympathetic portraits are drawn of Leo Kanner, Bruno Bettelheim and Andrew Wakefield.

Third, contending theories of the causes of autism are given a context: the rise of the eugenics movement in the 1920s and its reflection in fascism; the post-war entry of women into the workforce which raised concerns about ‘absent mothers’; the suspicions aroused by the pharmaceutical industry following the thalidomide scandal in the 1960s; and the impact of the social movements of the 70s on the self-representation of ‘minorities’.

Finally, it has a rallying cry. As the title suggests Silberman is an advocate 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’.  In promoting this view he sets himself against the prevailing emphasis on finding the cause(s) of autism and, by implication, a possible cure.

It’s a debate that is certain to continue but Silberman has made a convincing case for redirecting some of the huge resources currently spent on autism research to ‘ameliorating the aspects of autism that can be profoundly disabling without adequate forms of support.’

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Steve Silberman – Allen & Unwin – ISBN: 9781760113636

Reviewed by Mick Archer

9.5 Awesome

A meticulously researched and well-argued case for neurodiversity and the policy and funding implications that flow from it.

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Mick Archer is the Editor of Special World.

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