Steve Silberman’s “NeuroTribes: the legacy of autism and how to think smarter about people who think differently” is a book that needs no introduction. This monumental much anticipated history of autism has hit the best seller lists running and small wonder – it’s got it all – or nearly. I’ll come back to that later.
I viewed the 500 page door-stopper of a book that dropped through my letter box with some trepidation. This had better be good I thought. And it was. In fact, it is more than good and for once the hype is justified. Silberman’s work is as gripping as a detective story but a detective story told with rare compassion and insight. If you simply want a good read about the evolution of a condition from being viewed as a rare and devastating childhood disorder to the recognizable neurodevelopmental difference that it is seen as today, “Neurotribes” will do the job admirably. But it is far more than that.
Like any good story, it contains the good, the bad and the ugly. We hear of heroic parental struggles to keep children out of institutions which were little more than warehouses, and we hear of the torture of electric shocks being used to persuade autistic children out of their wayward behaviour. There are heroes (Asperger tops Kanner in this), villains and the diabolical (Bruno Bettelheim comes to mind). There are researchers fumbling in the dark and occasional startling glimpses of light. There are autistic people themselves, finally able to self-advocate and inform the world about what autism really feels like from within.
But – and here it seems almost churlish to critices a book on autism which so clearly champions the autism cause – I reached the end with a vague sense of disappointment. As a woman with autism, I felt that little had been said about the struggle girls and women have had to actually even get acknowledgement that they too are affected by autism other than a tokenistic mention towards the end in one all encompassing sentence about DSM revisions which “highlighted the needs of historically under-diagnosed populations, including women and people with colour“. In fairness, Silberman does provides interesting insights as to the cultural reasons why Asperger may have focussed his work predominantly on males. But the balance needs to tbe addressed. In the UK at least women have been marginalised and overlooked. but Judith Gould’s pioneering research on marginalisation and misdiagnosis of girls and women is at least a decade old. In the history of autism this is no longer recent and deserves a mention: women, afterall, constitute half the population. Other sectors of the population including ethnic minorities and the elderly have barely had a look in yet.
Perhaps my disappointment came from the fact that Silberman has attempted to give a full history of autism in the Western World but it has inevitably been highjacked by the more voiciferous American experience. Silberman does a highly credible job of drawing together the various and geographically disparate strands of autism’s historical development in the western world but there is a distinct American bias to it in the later years. I would have loved a bibliography to find out more and as an English person, the numerous abbreviations for American societies would benefit from a glossary for future editions (which I fervently hope there will be).
That said, I shall be a churl no longer. I loved this book, was in awe of its breadth and scope and as an autistic person am profoundly grateful to Steve for writing it.