“If normal is being selfish, being dishonest, having guns and waging war, I do not want any of it.”
Neurotribes, by Steve Silberman, is a wide ranging exploration of the history of autism and society’s attitude to those living with the diagnosis. It is a book about the condition but also about people, their fears and prejudices. Autistics have long been branded as diseased and inferior. They are not necessarily uncomfortable with themselves, it is others who are uncomfortable with them.
The book is divided into chapters which take the reader back to well before clinicians gave the condition a name. It introduces significant individuals from history whose discoveries and inventions shaped the world we know today but whose behaviours were deemed eccentric. The point is made that, should a cure for autism be found, scientific progress may be stymied. These people think differently, and it is that which could be regarded as their strength.
For centuries those who would not, or could not, behave as demanded by rigid, social rules were condemned to institutions. These individuals were damaged by the experience and had little chance of ever becoming contributing members of society. Those whose parents refused to bow to demands to give up on their misfits could work on finding a way to live in a world they struggled to make sense of.
“imagine the child’s reaction to the futility of living in an incomprehensible world run by what must appear to him to be demanding, ritualistic, arbitrary and inconsistent psychotics”
Parents of autistic children mourn the child they expected to have, desperate to have their beloved offspring fit in to a culture preoccupied with mass consumption and vacuous spectacle. They grasp at any straws which may offer a cure when what the autistic child wants is to find a way to communicate their needs and to be accepted as they are. There is much adult hand wringing over a child’s inability to make friends, even when the child appears happy with their solitary preoccupations. Little thought is given to why the child would wish to befriend those who mercilessly tease and bully them for being different.
“Left to his own devices, Robert might not have experienced himself as mentally ill at all, though he certainly could have developed an anxiety disorder from being perpetually grilled by men with clipboards.”
In the twentieth century psychiatry entered the mainstream of medicine and children labelled mentally retarded were studied. In Vienna, a pediatrician named Hans Asperger worked with a tight knit team of staff to find ways of engaging with unusual children. He dubbed these young people his little professors. His work was neglected until recently due to outside events. In America, the Eugenics Society was promoting the idea that those diagnosed as mentally deficient should be sterilized or even eliminated for the good of future humankind. Another Viennese, Adolf Hitler, took these ideas to extremes, but he was far from the only advocate of removing undesirables from the gene pool.
The cruelties inflicted on those deemed retarded make for depressing reading. From those autistics who are now adults and who, thanks to the advent of the internet, can be more widely heard, we learn that they view what would be regarded as normal behaviour as incomprehensible. One lady stated that she felt all her life like an anthropologist observing human interactions from a distance, straining to find meaning. She also pointed out that when autistics get together they can make sense of each other.
“the same behaviours that had been viewed for so long as inherently antisocial could become social in a group of autistic adults, particularly if there were no clinicians around to pronounce them pathological.”
The scope of the book and the detail offered make this a fascinating if sometimes challenging read. There is a great deal to take in but the central theme is constant – difference needs more acceptance. There has not been an autism epidemic, merely an expansion of the diagnosis. Autism is not a modern issue caused by vaccines, pollution or processed food, neither is it a fate worse than death. Autistics can lead full and happy lives if, just like the rest of society, they are welcomed in their community.
Difference is endemic yet so much effort is expended to promote a particular set of behaviours. By expounding on the damage this attitude has caused over centuries readers are encouraged to think differently themselves. Those raising neurodiverse children require and deserve more mainstream support. A varied society is scientifically and culturally richer, and this should be celebrated, not suppressed.