I like discovering books that change my vision. NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and The Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman was one of those books. I would consider it essential reading for anyone involved with or concerned about autism. Silberman does a brilliant job of reframing this huge topic by telling the little-known story of how autism was discovered more or less simultaneously in the US, by Leo Kanner, and in Germany–Nazi Germany–by Hans Asperger. Kanner pathologized the condition and concluded it was very rare: Asperger thought it was a fascinating, often enriching, and common human condition. Tragically, his work was obscured by the era he lived in. In his writing he foregrounded a few very high-functioning kids in order to save many others from Hitler, who was murdering people considered disabled. It meant that for decades the few researchers and doctors who were aware of Asperger’s work thought it related only to one end of the spectrum. Although Kanner’s contribution was important as well, his very different analysis has led, directly and indirectly, to much of the panic and misinformation that shadows autism today. Thousands of lives could have been far happier if Asperger’s rather than Kanner’s interpretation had been the basis for further research and treatment. It is heartbreaking to read of the inadvertent cruelty inflicted by well-meaning but ill-informed people.
There’s much more to this story, of course: many other heroes (including autistic children and adults) and a few shocking villains. I hope the book changes the picture and allows us to embrace all “neurotribes,” and to emphasize lifelong resources and support, rather than a “cure.”