NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman

NeuroTribes by Steve SilbermanNeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and The Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman
Published by Avery on August 25th 2015
Source: Library
Pages: 544
Buy from IndieBound

 

The day I finished reading Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes, I saw an image on Facebook that made me want to buy copies of the book for everyone I know. I’m sure you’ve seen something similar: this was a picture of a baby, surrounded by text with skyrocketing rates of autism, learning disabilities, and “chronic illnesses”, lamenting the depressing state of America’s “new childhood”.

NeuroTribes tells a completely different tale, connecting past to present in an incredibly detailed history of autism research and awareness. Starting with Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician who first recognized autism on a spectrum, the book uncovers links between early researchers and sheds light on their work. By connecting the story of autism’s discovery and early study to its sudden rise, it becomes clear how the widening of diagnostic criteria, increased public awareness, and improvement of diagnostic tools could account for recent growth in numbers. Siberman also digs into the details of Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent linking of vaccines and autism enough to show its place in history, including its impact, but not enough to let it overpower the book.

“The most insidious effect of Wakefield’s case study and the firestorm of controversy that followed it was hijacking the movement created by parents like Lorna and Ruth Sullivan, diverting it from its original mission of demanding services and accommodations in education into a rancorous debate about vaccines. In the heat of the Autism Wars, virtually every other issue—such as the pressing need for programs to help autistic teenagers prepare for employment—was swept off the table. Fears of an epidemic have also skewed the direction of autism research. Most studies backed by the NIMH and other federal agencies and private organizations like Autism Speaks are committed to an endless search for potential causes and risk factors, while projects devoted to improving the quality of autistic people’s lives are perpetually underfunded.”

Silberman ends with the concept of neurodiversity, which would balk at that Facebook meme’s depressing outlook on America’s “new childhood”. Instead, the focus of neurodiversity is celebrating neurological differences and recognizing them as variations that should be supported instead of disorders that must be cured. Like the rest of NeuroTribes, Silberman reaches this point through history, tracing back to Hans Asperger’s bold, early claims and walking through the evolution of the developing concept.

“Viewed as a form of disability that is relatively common rather than as a baffling enigma, autism is not so baffling after all. Designing appropriate forms of support and accommodation is not beyond our capabilities as a society, as the history of the disability rights movement proves. But first we have to learn to think more intelligently about people who think differently.”

Though I was familiar with much of the information in NeuroTribes, it had previously come in bits and pieces. Silberman manages to pull together an incredible amount of material on a hot-button topic and turn it into an even-handed, compelling narrative. I can’t recommend it enough.

For those of you in Central Virginia, Steve Silberman will be speaking at William & Mary on Sunday, November 8th as part of the university’s Neurodiversity Speaker Series.

 

  • This sounds really interesting…my mom has a couple friends who have severely autistic children and one of those friends has gone on to become somewhat of an expert in childhood autism (she’s a pediatrician by trade). So, I feel like I hear about this a lot….but, I haven’t heard about the different way of looking at it that you mention here. I like that change of perspective. Are you going to make it to W&M to hear him speak? And – my husband is taking my son to Richmond next weekend and my mom is planning to take him to the zoo to see the leopard, etc on Sat if the weather holds up!

    • I’m definitely going to try to go see him on Sunday since William and Mary isn’t too far. I hope your son can get to the zoo and have an awesome time!

  • This one sounds interesting. I think I want to read this one. I’ve been arguing the ‘better diagnosis’ thing for a long time now.

  • “Instead, the focus of neurodiversity is celebrating neurological differences and recognizing them as variations that should be supported instead of disorders that must be cured.” Love this!
    And this: “But first we have to learn to think more intelligently about people who think differently.”

    Thanks for the great review, Shannon! A close friend of mine has 4 children, 3 of them are on the spectrum. I’ll be sure to tell her about this book.

    • It’s definitely a quotable book! I had tabs all over the place and had to hold myself back from adding more to the review.

  • What an interesting topic and it sounds like this is a great review of where we are today, from a historical perspective. I’ve had co-workers with autistic children and my current running coach has a daughter with autism; he gives a percentage of his earnings to Autism Speaks and I know that he and his family are very impressed with their work. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one; I’d love to read it!

    • The historical perspective was definitely what made it appealing for me – being able to see everything all connected in a linear story.

  • “the focus of neurodiversity is celebrating neurological differences and recognizing them as variations that should be supported instead of disorders that must be cured.” Huzzah, Amen, whatever celebratory praise phrase you want to use, THAT. He sounds like my kind of guy. I had no idea this book existed until I heard you talking about it. It’s definitely going in my stack.

  • I was following you as you read this book thinking that I wanted to read it but wasn’t sure if I actually wanted to read it – you know? But this review might have swayed me to the side of “I want to read it.” I love that it’s not just about the vaccine wars (although that by itself is FASCINATING, just the fact that that became accepted wisdom despite the fact that there is no evidence to support it) but about the history of autism. I do think that the widening of criteria for diagnosis means that more kids are diagnosed as having autism (or at least being on the spectrum, which is massive). I remember when I read Far From the Tree (a book I feel the same way about – I try and make everyone read it), the chapter on kids with autism scared me the most. But I think maybe those stories were the most extreme.

    • This actually gave me a push to add Far From the Tree to my library list! It’s been one I’ve considered for a long time, but hadn’t picked up…now I definitely want to.

  • Amanda

    My husband came home talking about this book after hearing about it on NPR. He was really offended I was more interested in it as a book after I saw you were reading it. But that aside – this sounds very interesting, and like one I might have to get for both of us from the library.

    • Uh oh, I have some apologizing to do ;)
      It would be super good to read together – it’s one you definitely want to talk about when you’re done.

    • To be fair, I’d probably be more interested in reading a book that gets Shannon’s seal of approval before anything else, too. ;)

      • Amanda

        Lol! glad it isn’t just me

  • This just came in on the hold shelf for me, and I’m so excited. My partner is a special educator and we live with an individual with autism, and I still feel like I am ill-informed. Glad to hear this is a good treatment of the subject.

    • That sounds very similar to me – I’ve been teaching for years, but this really brought together all the information I had from classes and personal experience into a big, linear story and my brain just loved it that way.

  • This sounds like an interesting book, but I’m most excited about it because you’ve been so excited about it! It seems like it must have been really well done :)

  • I’m so glad you put this on my radar – I’ve seen it around bookstores but didn’t really pay much attention to it because I didn’t know anything about it. I’ve requested the audiobook and am looking forward to it!

  • Hibernators Library

    I can’t wait to read this book! I’ve heard such great things, and it just keeps popping up everywhere! Unfortunately, I have a queue…I might just have to cheat. We’ll see if my compulsive queue-breaking guilt can stand such a blow. :)

  • This has sounded incredible every place I’ve read about it. It’s great that he’s able to be measured about that g.d. autism/vaccines study, situating it within the broader discourse about autism rather than letting it be everything about the book. Yay for that guy! (Cause I don’t get in FB fights that often, but when I do, it’s usually cause someone brought up vaccines causing autism.)

    • Ugh, those FB debates are so hard to avoid because it’s SO clear. But yeah, I liked that he was very deliberate about that without needing to dedicate whole chapters to it.

  • “Most studies backed by the NIMH and other federal agencies and private organizations like Autism Speaks are committed to an endless search for potential causes and risk factors, while projects devoted to improving the quality of autistic people’s lives are perpetually underfunded.”

    Oh my yes, so important. Knowing the roots is well and good, but what about dealing with what’s right in front of us? I think this is a big reason I could never be a purely academic researcher!

    Anyway, this sounds great, and I’m so happy that you got so much out of it. I know how much the subject means to you!

    • The research piece is BIG and reading this added a few new research questions for me, especially when it comes to teacher training, etc.

  • Your review confirms my suspicions about this being a must-read! I didn’t know there was a Ted talk, but I did hear part of the NPR interview and loved what this man had to say! Thanks for moving this one up on my endless list!! :)

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