The hidden thread of autism throughout history

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

The struggle

To exist as a culture (or subculture) it helps to have a history of the group, a story that says who you are and how you function as a society. Aspies have been hidden from the mainstream even while shunned from it or existing parallel to it or trying to fit into it.  Just as we are finally learning all the important contributions of women, we need to understand the place of autistic people in history.

Why this is important

It wasn’t that long ago that the word “autism” would bring to mind activist mothers hunting for “the cure” for their beloved children who had been stolen by a brand-new, mysterious disease.  And while as a mother I sympathize with the parents who want to help their children, we now know that autism is inborn, largely genetic, and a different operating system that can no more be cured than an iPhone can be “cured” into being an Android. But is it new?  Or has it been around for a long time?

Something that really stuck with me

There is actually a history of autism!  There is so much rhetoric about it being a recent phenomena that it was refreshing to see a narrative that matched our experience so closely.  We can see the thread of autism running through both our families and even though people weren’t diagnosed, nothing else so clearly explains the quirky behavior in family stories.

Any thumbs down?

This thing is a tome.  It is not a light read, not easy to pick up and put down between caring for kids, and not something I could listen to on audio with the kids around.  And it isn’t meant to be.  But it took months for me to get through it because I just don’t have that much time that I can focus to the level this required.  I tried listening to it while driving the kids to their activities but it got too dark too fast (Nazis, the abuse of people with mental illness, etc).  It’s still a really important book and very interesting–it just requires a little more from the reader than most of the books I read. 

Final thoughts

I think this is an important book because it traces the history of the concept of what autism is and how it can be overlooked because it is so variable, this creative and unusual thread through time, a genetic variant that provides us with some of the most brilliant ideas in science while also leading to significant struggles.

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