Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity makes a forceful case that autism and related conditions are not caused by some error in human development but rather are examples of the natural diversity of human minds and neither rare nor new. Further, he says resources should be directed toward providing individualized education programs for children with such conditions and support systems for them and their families.
It’s a powerful argument, one that rejects both the claim common to the anti-vaccine movement that some evil conspiracy is causing a surge in autism and the idea that it is something that should be prevented at all costs if it cannot be cured. Instead, he argues that these different forms of thinking are valuable to all of us.
And he doesn’t just find value in the eccentric geniuses who are said to fall along the Asperger’s spectrum, but also in those who will always need some assistance with their daily lives. We human beings need this neurodiversity in our midst.
But what is most fascinating to me as a writer and one-time journalist is how Silberman leads the reader to his conclusions. For this isn’t a simple book of opinion, but a detailed factual analysis of the history of autism and its treatment.
This is a book that represents reporting – in the journalistic sense – at its finest. Silberman researched the subject thoroughly and interviewed everyone from researchers to parents to activists with autism. Many of the people who made great strides in understanding autism – such as British psychiatrist Lorna Wing, who resurrected Asperger’s work – were still living when he began his research and he was able to spend time with them.
By amassing so much information, and by laying it out so that the facts speak for themselves, Silberman does a beautiful job of setting the stage for his conclusions. He has compassion for many of those doctors and researchers whose approaches seem outrageous, even unconscionable, recognizing how much they were driven to try to “fix” children who were clearly out of place. Yet he also shows up the hucksters and frauds among them.
The book is beautifully written – a page-turner on par with any thriller. It’s almost impossible to put down. By the end, it is clear that the autism “epidemic” is simply the result of a clearer understanding of neurodiversity and the inclusion of broader psychological definitions intended in part to make certain that people got the educational and other assistance they needed.
There’s no conspiracy here, just the usual stumbling of human beings toward a real understanding of something happening around them. Silberman does an excellent job of showing how that process works.