Roderick Cobley reviews Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes: the Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently, finding a work rich in historical insight, but unfortunately lacking in political understanding.
Autism is not a very common subject for political discussion among the left. However, for a number of years there has been an ‘autistic rights movement’ led by autistic people (many of whom insist on calling themselves this rather than ‘people with autism’). In some ways more cultural than political, many in the movement seek to argue for their perspectives, their ways of thinking, feeling and living, to be seen as valid and to be accomodated by ‘neurotypical’ society. This movement is among the many facets of autism dealt with in Neurotribes, a new book by the American writer Steve Silberman.
Silberman already has a reputation among ‘the autism community’ as the author of ‘The Geek Syndrome’, a 2001 article which analysed what seemed to be a surge of autism diagnoses in Silicon Valley. Silberman posited that the world of computer programming is a particularly friendly work environment for so-called ‘high functioning’ autistic people, and this is an idea that has since become increasingly popular.
His background is an interesting one in itself: the author is a gay man who studied with Allan Ginsberg at Naropa University, a Buddhist-inspired private university in Boulder, Colorado. He has written extensively for Wired magazine, where he has been an editor and contributor for 14 years. Neurotribes is his most significant work to date, and was awarded the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2015.
The book is designed to be a history of autism and as such is a first class introduction to the subject. It gives a comprehensive overview of how autism was discovered and how views of autism within the medical and psychological professions have changed over time, as well as looking at activism by parents’ groups and latterly by autistic individuals themselves. The book has a strong focus on America, although this is not exclusive, and is in itself inevitable considering the author’s nationality.
Silberman highlights how autism was discovered separately by two Austrian psychologists – Hans Asperger, after whom Aspergers’ Syndrome was named, and Gustav Kanner, who lived and worked in the US. Aspergers’ work was lost in allied bombing raids during World War Two, and Silberman demonstrates what a disaster this was. Asperger, who nicknamed the more able of the children he worked with ‘the little professors’, was very clear that autism was a wide spectrum and contained wide variations in impairment and ability, often bringing strengths as well as deficits.
Kanner, by contrast, saw autism as very specific, affecting only a small number of children, and as always devastating in its effects. It is this view of autism that became dominant in the literature, only recently facing any significant challenge. Kanner is portrayed by Silberman as a deeply dishonest figure. He is shown facilitating the popularisation of Bruno Bettelheim’s ‘refrigerator mothers’ theory, which blamed autism on cold and unloving parents, and later, after that theory was discredited, as implying that he had never had anything to do with it.
Silberman spends substantial parts of the book charting the development of various campaigns by parents of autistic children. These include the National Society for Autistic Children (NSAC), set up by one parent, Ruth Sullivan, which sought to fight for better services for autistic children, and which later became the Autism Society of America.
It also looks at the work of those who believed in medical treatment and cure, rather than services, as being the best way to help autistic children. Bernie Rimland, who was initially a member of the NSAC, turned towards biomedical interventions and ended up championing the idea that there was an autism ‘epidemic’ due to vaccines. The behaviourist Ole Lovaas, meanwhile, looked to behaviour-based ‘training’ of children from a young age. His Applied Behavioural Analysis broke down the process of building ‘normal’ skills in autistic children, seeking to teach them step by step how to behave in ‘appropriate’ ways.
Silberman shows how fraudulent the former was, and how prone to abuse the latter was. Such efforts were all based on deeply disablist ideas of autistic children being incapable people who need to be made normal, but Silberman shows how both were also born as a reaction and in opposition to Kanner’s view that autistic children were incurable and ineducable and should be institutionalised for life.
A substantial section of the book is given over to the above mentioned autistic rights movement. Silberman describes how this movement was born out of autistic people meeting on the fringes of autism conferences and creating ‘autistic spaces’ together. Silberman describes the development of the movement, leading ultimately to the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) in the US, whose founder and director, Ari Ne’eman, now sits on Obama’s National Council on Disability. Focusing on the viewpoints of autistic activists is hugely welcome, although there are weaknesses in the uncritical praise given to ASAN, an essentially liberal lobbying group.
Another weak area is a long diversion into what looks like an attempt to prove, via potted biographies of a number of historical individuals, that much of modern technology and culture is down to autistic people. This is highly tendentious. Although the individuals talked about, such as Henry Cavendish, a famously reclusive scientific pioneer, or Hugo Gernsback, who popularised wireless radio and launched the first ever science fiction magazine, had personalities that could have fitted the autistic mould, none were ever diagnosed, and identifying them as such is inevitably speculative. Silberman’s focus on this is an attempt to prove the idea that autistic traits are beneficial to society, a premise that is impossible to prove either way.
However, the politics of the book are its single biggest weakness. Silberman is clearly no leftist, never mind a revolutionary. So, for instance, at no point does he seek to make any connection between the oppressive treatment autistic people have faced and the wider context of capitalist society. Nor does he relate autism to wider disability politics, for instance by seeking to apply the social model of disability to autism. Anyone looking for a manifesto for autistic rights and how autistic people can fight back will be disappointed. Such a radical perspective still remains to be developed.
Nonetheless, the book has to be seen overwhelmingly in positive terms for what it sets out to be – a straightforward history of the subject which takes a broadly optimistic view of the potential for autistic people to thrive in society, with the right mix of services, accommodation, and measures to ameliorate the more negative aspects. On that basis, this book is essential background reading for campaigners and anyone interested in finding out more about the subject.