"NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity"

Sep 2, 2015

On this edition of ST, our guest is Steve Silberman, who's written about science and cultural affairs for WIRED and other leading magazines for more than two decades. He joins us to talk about his book, just out, called "NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity." Praised by Nature magazine as "a comprehensive history of the science and culture surrounding autism studies [and] an essential resource" -- and featuring a foreword by the late Oliver Sacks -- this book reveals, as noted on its dust jacket, "the secret history of autism, long suppressed by the same clinicians who became famous for discovering it, and finds surprising answers to the crucial question of why the number of diagnoses has soared in recent years. Going back to the earliest days of autism research and chronicling the brave and lonely journey of autistic people and their families through the decades, Silberman provides long-sought solutions to the autism puzzle, while mapping out a path for our society toward a more humane world in which people with learning differences and those who love them have access to the resources they need to live happier, healthier, more secure, and more meaningful lives." And further, per a book critic for Kirkus: "[This is] a well-researched, readable report on the treatment of autism that explores its history and proposes significant changes for its future. Silberman...explores the work of Hans Asperger, a Viennese pediatrician who saw a genetic root to the disorder, and Leo Kanner, a child psychiatrist in Baltimore whose work led to the 'refrigerator mother' concept promoted and exploited by Bruno Bettelheim. Woven into his accounts of the clinical work and theories of these men are a wealth of sympathetic stories of parents and their autistic children. There's even the story of the making of 'Rain Man,' which featured Dustin Hoffman as an autistic man. The latest version of the Diagnosis and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders recently redefined autism as autism spectrum disorder, a single disorder having a wide range of symptoms and severity. Asperger's syndrome, no longer in the DSM, is generally seen to be at the mild end of the spectrum. Silberman argues for the concept of neurodiversity, the idea that this disorder -- and others like dyslexia and ADHD -- represents naturally occurring cognitive variations that have contributed to the evolution of human culture and technology. As the author writes, people with autistic traits 'have always been part of the human community, standing apart, quietly making the world that mocks and shuns them a better place.' In the closing chapters, the author acknowledges the emergence of autistic-run organizations, the impact of the Internet in providing a natural home for the growing community of newly diagnosed teens and adults, and a growing civil rights movement that doesn't depend on hopes for a cure but seeks to help autistic people and their families live more productive and secure lives."