Not broken; just neurologically outnumbered. A review of “Neurotribes” by Steve Silberman

This is a very good book. It tackles the subject of autism and goes into it in some detail. Specifically, it is a history of how autism has travelled from being treated as a form of madness, to an illness, to a disability to a part of the diverse spectrum of cognitive development that represents the strange but gifted animal, Homo Sapiens.

The author is a journalist who originally made his way to California to follow his favourite group “The Grateful Dead” and found himself in the late 60’s living and interacting with the likes of Allen Ginsberg. Being in San Francisco meant that he was in at the birth of the digital revolution in “Silicon Valley” just a few miles from his home. As an aspiring young journalist, he became part of the “Wired” magazine team that covered the origins of this revolution and the personalities involved.

During the course of investigating the somewhat strange personalities of many of the pioneers of Silicon Valley Silberman came across many examples of children of these so-called “Geeks” who had been born with developmental issues. He wondered if there was a reason for this and he researched an article that was eventually published as “The Geek Syndrome”.

The research for the article introduced Silberman to the subject of “Autism” and in particular a form of it for so-called “high functioning” individuals called (now) “Asperger’s Syndrome”.

I say,called now, because the book details the history of how Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician who worked at the University of Vienna put forward a number of theories about the highly intelligent children and young adults that had been referred to him who had remarkable abilities in encyclopaedic knowledge of certain (often scientific) subjects but often had not spoken for the first few years of life and found social interaction painful and extremely difficult.

Asperger saw many positive qualities in these young people who had often been shunned by society and were often confined (probably for life) in institutions for the mentally ill. He was willing to see their problems as a handicap but not a life sentence inside an institution and he was willing to allow their talents to thrive. He did not see autism as a disease that was somehow curable.

In the U.S. A., at almost the same time, Leo Kanner, the father of Child Psychiatry, was doing research into what he called “Infantile Autism”. He wrote a famous article in 1943, where he described eleven children who had remarkable abilities, but, like Asperger’s children/young adults, displayed severe problems in social communication and showed traits such as head-banging, total silence and failure to make eye-contact.

Kanner’s approach to the reasons for these children’s problems and to their solution was very different from Asperger’s. Silberman presents his research into the fact that Kanner never mentioned Asperger’s work although he must have known about it because Georg Frankl, the chief diagnostician in Asperger’s clinic in 1938, came to Johns Hopkins University to work in Kanner’s clinic later that year.

A really good description of the intellectual differences and consequences of the work of Asperger and Kanner can be seen in Simon Baron-Cohen’s excellent review of the book in the Lancet.

The key difference, according to Silberman, was that Kanner, although fighting the institutionalisation of these children, believed that they could be helped to change into as “normal” a person as was possible. To Asperger, they represented a different kind of thinking and being that needed to be nurtured and understood. Asperger’s approach was very much in tune with the modern “neurodiversity” movement but his research was largely forgotten for over 40 years.

Silberman puts forward a number of reasons for this.Firstly Kanner was able to dominate the field in the academic centre of world psychology/psychiatry, the U.S.A. Asperger stayed in Austria during World War 2 and continued to work at the University of Vienna, which became a centre for Nazi Eugenics. He was only able to continue his position by swearing allegiance to Adolph Hitler and the Nazi State. Silberman comes out with a theory that Asperger’s Christian beliefs meant that he did not support Nazism but went along with it in order to carry on his research, which in many ways undermined the Eugenics theories that his colleagues championed. The actual level of Asperger’s Nazi sympathies is still debated to this day.

The result of Asperger’s academic neglect was that autism was seen in terms of Kanner’s ideas up until the 1960’s. Silberman covers the period where parents (in particular mothers) were “blamed” for their children being born with this “condition”. The children were seen as uneducable or at least in need of separation from the “mainstream”. In Kanner’s terms, only about 4 children in 10,000 were sufferers of “Infantile Autism”.

This all changed due to the work of a British Psychiatrist, Lorna Wing. She, with her fellow researcher Judith Gould, re-examined Asperger’s work. She believed that there were far more children with what she started to call “Asperger’s Syndrome” than 4 in 10,000. She wanted to reinvigorate the idea of autism as being numerous conditions on a “spectrum”  and that there could be fully functioning, highly successful individuals who had aspects of the problem.

The re-introduction of Asperger into the debate supported various organisations in the U.S.A., Australia and Europe where parents and indeed Autistic people themselves fought for educational and social rights. They believed that many people in history, particularly in science and technology, had been on the spectrum and there are various names that have been put forward as possible candidates, of which, Sir Isaac Newton, Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein are just three.

According to these new ideas about Autism, there have always been people who did not fit into the “normal” category. My favourite quote in this respect was from the well-known Autistic academic, speaker and writer, Temple Grandin, who said that she imagined that the first great technological breakthrough, the arrowhead, was fashioned at the back of a dark cave by a patient autistic person, whilst the “normal” ones gossiped about nothing around the fire!

Silberman, in many ways, comes full circle from his “Geek Syndrome” article by describing how the internet and the digital revolution, created largely by people on the spectrum, provided the basis for non-social contact that has allowed many “spectrum people” to thrive. Perhaps our world, which has always been greatly influenced by the “Geek Tribe” who have been misunderstood, incarcerated, destroyed, bullied and shunned by the normal majority, now has to live lives on their terms.

The idea of thriving has led to the creation of the term “neurodiversity” whereby autism is seen as another way of thinking. This is perhaps best seen in one of the most famous commercials of all time that can be seen above.

This is a really good read by a very good writer. At this point, I should admit to a vested interest in this subject. My family has two and probably three or more generations of people with Asperger’s. As Silberman says, this is not something to keep quiet about but in our neurodiverse world, to celebrate.





About malbell

I am a retired Teaching and Learning Consultant. Previously I was a Primary school headteacher and deputy headteacher. I enjoy reading, doing MOOCs and learning new things.
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