Book Gives Detailed Portraits of Historical Figures with Autism to Prove It Means Different, Not Less

From the first descriptions of autism in the 1940s, the condition has been written up as a bizarre, mysterious thing; a phenomenon in which the human beings living with it were considered largely bit players. This peculiar approach is more an artifact of history rather than an accurate way of describing the autism spectrum, according to a book by Steve Silberman called NeuroTribes.

Via Lance Neilson
Via Lance Neilson

At the heart of Silberman’s hefty book is the plea that children with autism are, in the words of Temple Grandin, “different, not less.” In support of this position, the book delivers detailed portraits of individuals, both living and long-deceased, who either have autism or are suspected of having had it. Historical figures include Henry Cavendish and Nikola Tesla, both giants in their fields. Silberman lingers on biographical details, most of which seem calibrated to bring out the unique characteristics of the people, rather than merely convey information. One such instance is the story of Cavendish describing one of his maiden aunts as “not as ugly as the other.”

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This anecdotal approach, which would get the author tarred and feathered in an academic treatise, puts a human face on a disorder that affects millions of children and adults around the world and seems to be caused by a devilishly complicated combination of factors. By going easy on the numbers and the statistics, not to mention the basic anatomy and physiology of autism, Silberman manages to appeal to what he no doubt hopes is a mass audience.

More than anything else, NeuroTribes reads as the effort of a fundamentally decent man, Silberman, who loves the autism community and wants them to get the help they need from the world around them. By skipping the nuts and bolts of autism spectrum disorder, though certainly not sparing the indulgent reader scores of pages worth of backstory on every person until each one feels like a long-lost relative, this book drives home the point that people around the world have been interpreting autism all wrong. Silberman’s point is that, by treating autism in the same way as psychosis or bipolar disorder, the therapeutic community has done patients and their families a terrible disservice. NeuroTribes builds this case very slowly, rising to the conclusion that the pathologizing of autism was a ghastly mistake.

Via Allen Sheffield
Via Allen Sheffield

The author tells the story of quack remedies, including shock therapy, lobotomies, and hefty doses of LSD, with an appropriate degree of objectivity. Even so, the narrative gives an emotional impression that he’d quite like to rip the heads off of people who pinned blame on cold, unloving motherhood, as can be seen in this quote:

By blaming parents for inadvertently causing their children’s autism, Kanner made his syndrome a source of shame and stigma for families worldwide.

Silberman also addresses the modern frauds and cranks who lurk around the autism movement. Hovering over vaccine skeptics like a hungry cobra, Silberman wades through dozens of pages full of dispassionate history before driving his fangs into the wholly discredited and catastrophically wrong Wakefield study erroneously linking the MMR vaccine to autism.

Photo: Adobe Stock/Konstantin Yuganov

These diversions, however, are mostly just that; diversions. The main story Steve Silberman set out to tell was the biographical tale of people living with autism and their families. In 534 pages, the book returns again and again to the well of the human interest behind children and adults with autism, imploring us every time to see people to be cared for, rather than pathologies to be cured.

Steve Silberman has taken readers through the journey of a lifetime; several lifetimes, in fact, considering how many people he introduces. Whatever the validity of a non-clinical approach to ASD, it’s clear that NeuroTribes has accomplished the main goal it set out with: introducing the public to real people who need our attention.

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