Review of NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman

Zach Michaels

NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman is, to put it in the simplest terms, the definitive history of scientific and popular knowledge of Autism in the western world. After a brief introduction detailing how Silberman became involved with journalistic accounts of autistic people and the scientific studies pertaining to them, the book opens with a biographical account of Henry Cavendish, a late 1700’s English scientist (or natural philosopher as he would be referred to in his time period.) Silberman’s account of Cavendish suggesting he had high functioning autism, and presenting him as someone who was quite a success story, at least if judged on his own standards, especially considering that he was born almost two centuries before anyone had even begun thinking about the diagnosis that would have applied to him.

Suggesting that historical figures had high functioning autism might strike some people as a bit of a tired cliché, but Silberman presents an exceedingly compelling case, and uses it as a starting point to discuss the complicated history of autism research, using the initial biographical story of an autistic person to set the tone for the rest of the book, in which he balances objective facts about the progression of autism research, with an empathetic look at how different periods of research influenced, (and was influenced by) the political and social climates they took place in, and how that influence affected the actual people with autism in those times and places.

It’s a story that proves to be quite frequently troubling. Two schools of thought emerge on autism emerge, tied to the age old debate on nature vs nurture. However due largely to a perception of autism as being only a problem to be dealt with, and not a condition to be understood in a holistic, humanistic, or positivist way, both schools prove to have negative repercussions, with the nature school emerging with eugenicist overtones, and the nurture school being ultimately spearheaded by a man named Bruno Bettelheim, whose arguments that autism was caused by toxic parenting, especially toxic mothering, could generously be described as sloppy reasoning, and less generously be described as histrionic misogyny. Hans Asperger, the researcher for whom Asperger’s Syndrome was named, saw autism as not being merely a problem, but something that something that might be cultivated to benefit society, something different, but not necessarily worse, but in a massive and bitter irony, his research was ignored by the scientific community for decades due to him being associated with the Nazi government he (likely less than enthusiastically) worked under.

The previous summary does not even begin to scratch the surface of NeuroTribes, which is immensely detailed and thorough. To say that it is focused on the big picture is an understatement. While it does not follow the goals of many other autism-related books on the market of offering practical advice for parents or caregivers, it’s does something unique in providing an unrivaled sense of perspective to the current sociological context of autism. It is a book that explains the past so that readers may understand the possibilities of the future. It will not necessarily help those who want to learn the basics of autism, but for people who have high functioning autism, and the family members and loved ones with autism, NeuroTribes may help build up a sense of confidence that with time and effort those with autism will find a place in the world that will allow them to thrive.

On a personal note, as a young adult who received a diagnosis of potential Asperger’s Syndrome around 4th grade, NeuroTribes provoked a great deal of thought and reflection. I appreciated reading something that took a journalistic perspective that was as sociological as it was psychological. In college I majored in sociology, and at some point I plan to continue to study the subject in graduate school. I felt, and continue to feel, that I lack a certain degree of instinct with social interactions, and sociology on a micro-level, is a way of intellectualizing interpersonal processes and developing positive social interactions, and on a macro-level, is a way of examining the wider social processes that are entwined with people’s identities. While many books on Asperger’s and Autism are provide psychological insight, NeuroTribes pushed me to think about Autism and the way that it does, or does not, affect my life, in a macro-sociological way. I personally enjoyed NeuroTribes more than most other autism related books I’ve read, because they usually focus on individual psychology and are written for a general audience. Trying to find personal value in them is which is really an unresolvable paradox, because it’s a form of metacognition that would require understanding how other people think to learn how to challenge my thought processes, to understand how other people think. I don’t think that’s just hard for autistic people to do, I think that’s close to impossible for any humans to do. NeuroTribes in contrast provokes a very holistic form of self-reflection, thinking about myself in relation to history, personal relationships, and wider society, which is perhaps the most useful form of reflection for someone on the spectrum. I hope that other people with high functioning Autism, and their families, enjoy this book as much as I did.