In reviewing this title, I must declare an immediate disclosure of interest, having being diagnosed at the age of three as occupying a place on the high-functioning end of the autistic spectrum. I only discovered it for myself when I was ten, after my mother (knowing I’m a quenchless reader) left Clare Sainsbury’s marvellous exposé Martian in the Playground on my bed; personal memoirs by Kenneth Hall and Luke Jackson solidified the reassurance that I’m not alone in who I am. As a result, a book whose blurb promises “solutions to the autism puzzle” was of particular appeal to me.
Silberman begins by setting out a counterargument to the conviction that autism is a recent phenomenon, exploring the academic and personal lives of two renowned scientists from history: Henry Cavendish and Paul Dirac. The former, a late-eighteenth-century “natural philosopher”, was so loath to interact with other human beings that he had a separate staircase constructed for his maids and servants, communicating with them exclusively in notes left on his kitchen table. The wife of the latter, an early-twentieth-century physicist, once complained to him that he never responded to questions she asked of him; listening nonetheless, but unable to answer her in person, Dirac would take her queries down on spreadsheets, and send replies to her in due course.
To the untrained observer these actions appear to be truculent or downright rude; however, I found their “antisocial” tics hilarious, even charming. The book does an impressive job in relaying the myriad symptoms of autism in its many forms – repetitive and mimicking behaviours, intense fixations on often obscure topics, and chronic difficulties in comprehending body language, tones of voice, and other non-verbal social cues that neurotypical people take for granted. It also conveys how autistic people have been viewed, portrayed, treated and shunned over the centuries – “brazen eccentrics”, “scion[s] of poets and recluses”, “empty human husks”.
There is far more wonder and richness in NeuroTribes than can be introduced here. Silberman casts a stark light on the dark chapters in autism’s history, not least the challenges that faced Hans Asperger, who first noted the common traits in the particular “flavour” of autism that bears his name today. While inter-war medicine obsessed over eugenics, a fervour that manifested itself in the Nazis purging the “incurably imbecilic” among other impure peoples, Asperger continued to deliver lectures and produce case studies in efforts to prove his beloved “little professors” were worthy of life, in occupied Vienna, between 1938-1940. It takes little imagination to understand how extraordinarily courageous this was.
Throughout, Silberman maintains an absorbing wit and a keen sense of narrative, but also lets the events and participants speak for themselves, with little need for ornamentation or personal rumination. Other sobering chapters describe the infamous Wakefield study linking MMR vaccines to autism, and the countless thorough refutings thereof; the gluten/casein-free diet purported to mitigate or even “cure” autistic tendencies; and the truly incredible “avoidance learning” techniques intended by Ove Lovaas to normalise autistic children (he expresses “pleasure to work with a child who is on mild food deprivation”).
But there are also delightful tales of people thriving despite – nay, because of – their autistic traits, from the individuals who inspired Rain Man to simple anecdotal profiles of everyday autistic children, with their own unique routines and preferences and talents – the adjectives “precocious” and “articulate” appear time and again. Overall, NeuroTribes illustrates an over-arcing tendency for institutions, seeking to alter behaviour to fit standards rather than vice versa, and societal inertia to be the greatest obstacles to autistic acceptance. Far from providing “solutions to the autism puzzle”, Silberman concludes instead that there is “much work to be done” in better accommodating them, accommodating us, in the world we all share.