Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently

I went to university believing that a copy of Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee would equip me to understand the violent history from which bled the palette of modern American literature. For all its grisly, unvarnished truth it was not sufficient for the purpose.

I feel the same about Steve Silberman’s study of autism. This is not a history of autism, though I wish it were. To be fair, its author doesn’t claim that. In an elegant foreword, neurologist Oliver Sacks credits Silberman with “illuminating as no one has before the history of Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger and their clinics . . .” and presenting “the remarkable shifting of attitudes toward autism and Asperger’s over the past few decades”. That narrows it down quite accurately; and narrow it is. The enormous success which the book has already enjoyed encouraged the view that this is an autism bible. It’s synoptic but it ain’t the gospel. At best it’s a history of the clinical groundwork by which we have come to define autism.

To give Silberman his due, he artfully reconnects the Australian anthropologist Judy Singer’s coining of the term “neurodiversity” with an assignment she received from a rabbi during her youth, in which she had to improve upon the Ten Commandments. She began: “Honour diversity…” Thus Silberman acquits himself and his title. That Neurotribes is rich in such tender anecdotes may be its greatest strength; that it is engorged with unnecessary detail is surely its most obvious weakness.

The opening chapter provides a florid portrait of the 19th-century scientist Henry Cavendish. “The contents of a lab cabinet cannot provide an inventory of a man’s emotional life,” states Silberman, who not only describes in endless detail the contents of Cavendish’s lab cabinet but also proves his own point. At least, in that first galloping narrative, Silberman does two worthwhile things: he acknowledges that for a very long time society has remarked upon its “eccentric” members even in the absence of a coherent explanation for their differences and he pitches a very straight ball — this is going to be a positive perspective on autism.

What criticism there has been centres on the suggestion that Silberman has perpetuated a glossy, engaging stereotype and painted an over-optimistic picture. I will declare an interest: I am diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and I spend most of my time teaching teenagers on the same point of the spectrum. For me, observing the subtlest motion in these children is invaluable and Silberman does the same, relaying the minutiae of conversations and journeys with autistic children.

Reaction to this perspective from within the autism community has not been wholly favourable. Silberman does what many people with an interest in autism do: he touches upon the qualities we lack before capturing in essence those that we have in plenty. But he gives too little space to the experiences of non-verbal and profoundly learning disabled autistics. He completely neglects the impact of epilepsy, so highly correlated with autism and so much in our own news recently.

Equally frustrating is the dearth of alternative perspectives: he strenuously exposes those who pathologised autism even until the 1990s, but he offers only neurology and, in his final chapter, a compensatory approach to education and employment, as means to reshape the experience of autism. But that’s not the whole story. Silberman could have re-examined social dimensions of autism through Foucault’s concept of “medical gaze” (in The Birth of The Clinic), Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright’s exposition of gaze in Practices of Looking or the substantive work of our own Katherine Runswick-Cole and Damian Milton.

Ultimately this is a book about neuroscience and many have drawn from that particular well. If I am grudging in my admiration of its detail, its energy, its sense of the historic moment, that’s because what I hoped for was a book about “us” and this feels very much, still, like a book about “them”. It reports forensically the way in which society stitched its clinical form upon this muumuu we call “autism”; and if that’s what you want, it’s absorbing.

Mr Angliss has donated his fee for this review to Action For Asperger’s, in Corby.