- NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman
In his engaging history of the autism diagnosis and the emergence of people with autism into disability rights consciousness, Steve Silberman describes Autreat, a conference and retreat for people on the autism spectrum. At Autreat, the social and cultural norms were not determined by “neurotypicals,” people without an autism diagnosis, but by autistics. For the 18 years it ran, Autreat sought to enact the value of neurodiversity, a term coined by Judy Singer in 1999 to describe an emerging conviction that neurological syndromes like autism are not forms of pathology so much as variant, and valuable, forms of cognitive difference that require acceptance and accommodation, not treatment. Silberman’s description of Autreat and the rise of self-advocacy is the culminating chapter of his book, and for Silberman it marks the beginning of an era when we can collectively begin to “think more intelligently about people who think differently” (471).
Steve Silberman has written an entertaining, compassionate history of autism. It is a history that offers a particular, and ethically inflected, interpretation of the various research programs and controversies that have characterized the history of the diagnosis. Silberman begins in the present, a moment when many diagnosed with autism have achieved a growing community consciousness and political visibility. Meanwhile, there is growing public awareness that autism is, in most cases, a lifelong condition rather than a disorder of childhood. Silberman’s story is about how this present came about, and what kept these changes from happening earlier. The narrative points to contemporary educational programs that teach to the strengths rather than the deficits of students with autism, and growing public and professional recognition that accommodating and accepting [End Page 1111] autistic people is as important an intellectual challenge as research into underlying genetic and neurological causes.
Silberman’s chapters roughly alternate between two different journalistic projects, capsule biographies that highlight the contributions of autistic people, and a revisionist history of the autism diagnosis. Hence, Chapters 1 and 2 deal with contemporary and historical figures. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 describe the early history of the autism diagnosis, including well-known researchers like Hans Asperger, Leo Kanner, and Bruno Bettelheim; Chapter 6 finds the roots of autistic culture in ham radio culture and science fiction fandom; Chapters 7 and 8 outline the evolution and expansion of the diagnosis and the birth of autism parent advocacy; Chapter 9 considers the outsized impact of the move “Rain Man” on public awareness; Chapter 10, the causes of the increase in diagnoses over the past few decades; and Chapters 11 and 12 recount the emergence of self-advocacy and the movement for accepting neurodiversity.
Both projects underscore Silberman’s focus on the underlying unity of the autism spectrum and the contributions of autistic people to science, engineering, and technology. He begins on a 2000 Alaskan cruise for Linux programmers, many of whom, Silberman notes, have autistic traits that facilitate rather than hinder their work (3). He follows that in Chapter 1 with a delightful brief biography of Henry Cavendish, the eccentric 19th century natural philosopher and discover of hydrogen. Cavendish strenuously avoided human contact, wore versions of the same green suit throughout his life, and pursued his solitary research projects with single-minded devotion: his “mind was like a mirror held up to nature, unclouded by bias, rationalization, lust, jealousy, competition, pettiness, rancor, ego, and faith” (29-30). NeuroTribes offers a series of such profiles, from Cavendish to Hugo Gernsback, a proponent of science fiction fandom and popular ham radio culture at the turn of the 20th century, to John McCarthy, a 1950s hacker and author of the programming language Lisp, to a contemporary 11-year-old named Leo Rosa and his family.
Silberman’s other project, interwoven with the first, is a retelling of autism’s history. Leo Kanner has traditionally been central to histories of autism; his remarkable 1943 diagnostic case series, with its richly detailed depictions of children with autism, surpassed Kanner’s limited efforts at explanation...