NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity
by Steve Silberman
Penguin Random House, 2015. 534 pgs. Nonfiction
In NeuroTribes, Steve Silberman has created an encyclopedic history of autism from its first designation by Hans Asperger to contemporary efforts to understand those on the autism spectrum as a normal part of a neurally diverse society. Silberman's account is filled with kindness (Dr. Asperger) and wrongheadedness (Dr. Leo Kanner - who blamed "refrigerator moms"), with helpful therapies and brutal ones, and with enlightening explanations for autistic needs and expressions like "stimming [e.g., rocking and hand-flapping], avoidance of touch, focus on one subject to the exclusion of all others, and extraordinary gifts in mathematics, memory, physics, music, etc. The contributions of Temple Gradin, Oliver Sacks, and Dustin Hoffman portraying the "Rain Man," to a more general understanding of the nature of autism are discussed here. Silberman provides and evenhanded assessment of the wrong-headed, self-serving attempts by various homeopathic practitioners and Dr. Andrew Wakefield (sample size: 12, with "doctored" results) to blame autism on vaccinations, and demonstrates that the recent upsurge in autism cases was predicted and can be explained by the expansion of the autistic spectrum and by better diagnostic techniques. Perhaps most importantly, Silberman has obviously listened very carefully to autistic people themselves, and he speaks very eloquently for them here, extolling the "virtues of atypical minds," and powerfully acknowledging that "people with cognitive differences could make contributions to society that so-called normal people are incapable of making." A profoundly important book.