Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently by Steve Silberman

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Reviewed by Liz Dexter

This book, which won the 2015 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, goes into the history of autism, research on autism and related syndromes over the years since they were first identified, and then attitudes to and the treatment of autism (and what eventually became known the autistic spectrum). The parallel but very different strands of autism and ‘Asperger’s’ research are dealt with, and it should be mentioned from the start that this is very much a neurodiversity positive and supportive book, although it does reveal some horrors that have gone on in the history of research and treatment.

As an investigative reporter who has been covering science and cultural affairs for various high-level magazines for over 20 years, Silberman has the ideal background to dig deep into the history and present of the pro-neurodiversity and pro-autism groups and researchers and to bring it all together into a compelling story.

The book starts off with a couple of descriptions of scientists from history who we would say now are ‘on the spectrum’, not in a move to retrospectively diagnose them (and this is made very clear), but more importantly to highlight their huge contribution to the development of science, which would not have been possible without their distinctive personality traits. This, indeed, is the central theme of this book; neurodiversity being key to human development and particularly scientific discovery, and the need to have all sorts of different kinds of brain for different kinds of situation.

Some of the historical sections on diagnosis and treatment would be distressing for people with autism in their immediate family to read and were on the edge of my tolerance: but it’s important for the author to set out the arguments around eugenics and around aversion therapy (the latter having been practised until almost the present day), both of which were represented, of course, at the time as ‘science’, because we need to know and remember what has happened in the past.

The mix of history and modern stories of advocacy and empowerment make for an engaging read; it was good to come across ‘old friends’ such as Temple Grandin, the subject of one of Oliver Sachs’s books. I particularly liked the autism activists who arose and grouped together with the development of the World Wide Web and collaborate with other disability advocacy groups and allies; less welcome was the in-fighting and one-upmanship amongst the various autism organisations, but this is typical of all movements and again, needs recording.

The book makes a convincing argument for two main strands: one, that we don’t have an epidemic of autism, but a rise in diagnosis (a process which the author investigates and pulls apart forensically and convincingly) and the other that there are huge benefits to neurodiversity, much as there are to biodiversity: different kinds of minds are needed for different situations, and we shouldn’t strive to make everyone uniform.

Anyone interested in autism and Asperger’s Syndrome will be interested in this book, and also those interested in the history of medicine, mental health treatment and psychology / psychiatry, with the caveat that some stories of the Nazis and eugenics and of treatments meted out in the 20th century could be found distressing.

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Liz Dexter blogs at Adventures in Reading, Writing and Working from Home. Liz is trying to read, write AND work from home more this year – this could be a tricky balancing act.

Steve Silberman, Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and how to Think Smarter about People who Think Differently (Allen & Unwin, 2015). 978-1760113636, 544pp., hardback.

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