There are so many books about autism that turn out to be disappointing because they mostly rehash all the old arguments. Many writers just want to promote their ideas while they wear blinders so they can ignore the opposition.

So I wasn’t particularly enthused when I came upon Neurotribes – The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. How wrong I was.

Author Steve Silberman seems relatively new to the subject, another reason why I was sceptical. But that may be the source of his intense curiousity, which is broad and profound. Neurotribes is interesting and compelling all the way through.

This is largely done with biographies of the chief players – Leo Kanner, Hans Asperger, and all those who followed them. Silberman empathizes with each of them, letting each one present their case while he retains an independent perspective that allows you to see their weaknesses.

For example, Hans Asperger. Sometimes accused of being a Nazi, Asperger only remained in Austria because he was trying to protect his autistic children from the Nazi program of sterilization and/or execution of mental patients. He didn’t choose to join the Nazi armed forces; he was drafted, and he only served in them as a doctor, trying to protect lives rather than destroy them.

We learn that Asperger had assembled data to support the idea of an autistic spectrum, something only accepted in psychiatry in the late 1980s. But while he was in the battlefields, unable to continue his research as Kanner was doing in America, his files were destroyed when an American bomb landed on the hospital in which they were stored.

The account of the making of the film Rain Man, with short bios of everyone involved, is a book within the book, and worth the price of the book by itself.

But there is much more – Bernard Rimland, Lorna Wing, the history of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), etc.

Steve Silberman puts it all together so well. When I finished Neurotribes, I felt as if I had a coherent understanding of autism for the first time.


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