Steve Silberman Explores the Secret History of Autism: NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity

Perspective proves to be unexpectedly powerful. The assumptions we bring to every thought are easily hidden. When we see others who are different, we create our models of them based on our own experience. The hidden assumption is that all humans experience the world in pretty much the same way. But what if sounds were so loud as to be overwhelming and lights so bright as to be blinding? The only way to uncover how others night feel is to listen closely and hear their story; even when they cannot themselves speak.

silberman-neurotribesSteve Silberman’s NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity tells a powerful story, and takes the reader on a journey of understanding. He has to fight an uphill battle, because much of what we thought we knew about autism is simply wrong. But Silberman engages the reader with the most powerful tool available to humans – the power of story. In uncovering the story of autism, which was hidden in bits and pieces of medical literature, he emerges with a transformative view of not just autism, but humanity. You enter a new era of diversity – neurodiversity.

Silberman begins with his own discovery of autism, as an interviewer for Wired magazine. An article The Geek Syndrome brought him mail ten years after he wrote it, and he decided to explore the subject in depth. He reaches back in the 19th century, before autism had a name, and uncovers “The Wizard of Clapham Common,” one Henry Cavendish, a remarkable genius who was clearly autistic. We meet Hans Asperger, a pediatrician in Vienna in the years after World War I. Asperger is a fascinating character who saw autism as a continuum, not uncommon and ranging in degree. It was Asperger’s belief that society could accommodate his students, if they were properly taught.

Leo Kanner, on the other hand, saw autism as incredibly rare and strikingly debilitating. He was first to suggest that “refrigerator mothers” were to blame. It was his view that prevailed, until a quiet war broke out in the 1980’s. Silberman weaves this intense and fascinating medical history with the story of parents and child in the 21st century, coping with the fallout from our understanding of autism. It is a engaging, powerful and fascinating tale that culminates in the present, with a new understanding of the human mind.

Make no mistake; NeuroTribes is a pulse-pounding, page-turning delight to read even when Silberman is touching on material that is powerfully disturbing. The book is impeccably architected, and a stunning history of medicine that is truly transformative for readers in terms of understanding humanity. We’re all well acquainted with the import of diversity in nature. Silberman concludes with an understanding that the human mind is also diverse, and that those on the spectrum will change the society that embraces them. The power of their perspective can shape the future.

Steve_SilbermanSteve Silberman didn’t start out wanting to cover autism. But the upshot of what he found was clearly profoundly moving to him. When we sat down to talk, I asked him to read a bit from the book NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, and his reading, which begins this interview, was so moving that listeners may begin to tear up before we even start talking.

What emerged as we spoke is a work of deep emotion and deep research. Silberman found himself in the middle of what he called “the autism wars,” which carry on to this day. He spent time with parents seeking any kind of cure for their children, and time searching through medical journals for clues as to why we saw a sudden spike in diagnoses.

Silberman’s work turns on a number of unforgettable characters; the Rosa family, living in the heights of the Santa Cruz mountains with a son who loves green straws; Henry Cavendish, an eccentric inventor; the power of the movie Rain Man; Hans Asperger, a brilliant man, head of his time and ahead of our time, trapped in Vienna as his world is overrun by Nazi; the cunning Leo Canning, who defined autism for much of the 20th century. Silberman and I talked about the men and women who shaped our notion of illness and health.

Listeners can hear the executive summary of our conversation, with material not found in the longer interview by following this link or listening below.

And they can hear the in-depth interview, which begins with a powerful reading from the book, by following this link or listening below.


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