Published by Avery on August 25th 2015
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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.