walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_NeuroTribes_, Steve Silberman

Subtitled: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity
Published by Avery (yeah, I had no association with them either; before Penguin bought them they published crap like _Why Sharks Don't Get Cancer_, one of those things that as soon as you see the title and realize it isn't a humor book makes you go, d'oh, because of course sharks _do_ get cancer)

If you've been reading popular articles about autism over the last couple decades, you've probably read at least one by Silberman, likely this one:


In the years between when this was published and when Silberman's new book has come ought, Silberman's understanding of the history of the various names that autism has traveled under has evolved substantially. Most important of all Silberman now understands that the increase in diagnoses is not a cause for alarm. He said this, in 2001: "Rates of both classic autism and Asperger's syndrome are going up all over the world, which is certainly cause for alarm" -- but now he knows better. In _NeuroTribes_, he carefully maps out how the DSM editions over the years communicated different understandings of autism. He argues that Kanner not only set a ludicrously high diagnostic threshold for autism, creating enormous confusion, but he also points out that Bettelheim had a lot of help from Kanner in creating the myth of the refrigerator parent and creating a social environment that favored taking people with autism and autism like conditions out of their homes where they might have eventually thrived, and institutionalizing them, where they had an alarming tendency to regress and die.

Silberman also spends a lot of time exploring why Asperger's understanding of the autism spectrum (a beautiful term created by Lorna Wing) failed to transition to the United States from WW2 Vienna. He cogently argues that Kanner knew about Asperger's work (he employed some of Asperger's coworkers) and carefully made sure that no one else had any awareness of it. Kanner liked a good story, and a rare disorder made for a better story than a ludicrously common one.

Like many journalists, Silberman has written a book that reads more like a series of articles than something structured as a book. There's the section about WW2 Nazism. There's the stuff about movies about autism. There's all that awfulness around Lovaas (complete with the airport Rentboy fiasco with Rekers). There's a really incredible development of Rimland, who I had not previously known about. And if you are looking for a thesis, well, that subtitle does nothing to help you find one.

But it's a really good book and definitely worth the time. I was particularly happy to read Silberman's version of how Wrong Planet came into existence (I love Wrong Planet. I don't spend a ton of time on it, but whenever I'm feeling particularly alone and like no one understands me, I go over there and I remember, oh, yeah. Right. These Are My People.). While the idea that people diagnosed with autism tend to have parents and grandparents with significant technical acumen is ever present throughout the book, Silberman spent less time on the Are All Computer People Autistic question than I would have expected. It's hard to tell whether he's trying to stay away from a live wire or just figures it would be flagellating a deceased equine. He does spend a lot of time throughout the book showing how people who probably were on the spectrum invented large chunks of modern science and technology, and how networked mobile devices have made it the world a lot friendlier to many people with communication idiosyncrasies.

If your connection to autism involves comorbidity with Downs or Fragile X, you will be _severely_ disappointed by this book. Sorry! It's a bummer that Silberman spent zero time on that aspect of the spectrum.

There are much better book reviews of this book out there. Here is one:


(The link internally to the original publication on PLOS generated a 404 when I followed it.)

This book review is by someone who knows the author, and the second have of the review is an interview with Silberman. Some of that discussion really clarifies why, even in 2015, the coverage of women with autism in _NeuroTribes_ is so limited. (Honestly, hating on Clara is particularly ridiculous. "Hyper neurotypical"? How is that not a red flag right there?)

Here is an article that suggests autism in the Curie family:


"As well as these three I believe there are other scientists who may have been Asperger people, including Marie Curie and her elder daughter the atomic physicist Irène Joliot-Curie, also the theoretical physicist Paul Dirac."

I would also offer up women like Jane Addams (altho it has been so ludicrously difficult to get people to even accept the obvious fact of her same-sex attraction and relationship, I have little hope that we're gonna get anyone on board with the she was on the spectrum proposition), Clara Barton, Maria Mitchell ... basically, if you can think of a woman who made an early and substantial dent in science or some other technical field, and that woman had a childhood characterized by extreme shyness/timidity and/or in later life wound up bucking enormous societal pressure to support an important and unpopular political change, I think you've got a woman on the spectrum with a spectacularly high IQ. And I don't quite understand why we can't see that.

But I'm increasingly optimistic that someday, we will.

ETA: I keep forgetting that my husband suggested I add Lise Meitner. He is, of course, entirely correct.
Tags: autism, book review
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