Review of *NeuroTribes*, by Steve Silberman

This book already has done a good deal to raise the status of autistic people and also studies of autism.  Silberman is to be commended for extensive research into the lives of Hans Asperger and Leo Kanner and into the modern “neurodiversity” movement more broadly.  He has taken on a very difficult topic and turned it into what is likely to prove a commercially successful book.

That said, most reviews of this work, while positive, are not very assured.  It’s as if the reviewers know they are not well-informed about the topic and thus they stick to general praise, without delving into the details.  Or maybe they like the book’s conclusion and are reluctant to criticize the work as a whole.  I, in contrast, have a few more pointed remarks:

1. Leo Kanner, a co-discoverer of autism, is made out to be the bad guy, yet his writings are more subtle than Silberman indicates, even though one can pull some bad phrases and quotations.  Kanner in particular had a much stronger grasp of the diversity within autism (pdf) than Silberman grants.  It is hard, after reading that piece, to see how his conception of autism could be described as monolithic.

The contrast between Kanner and Asperger is much overdrawn.  The truth is closer to “they both had profound early insights and were unjustly neglected” rather than Silberman’s “sadly the Kanner approach to autism at first beat out the Asperger approach.”  The latter narrative is an over-dramatized storytelling convention of a popular book.  The real problem back then was how various minorities and “deviants” were treated, from gay individuals to lobotomized schizophrenics, rather than the dominant influence of Kanner’s ideas.

2. Silberman promotes an “along a spectrum (spectra?) model” rather than an “autistic yes or no” model.  Maybe so, but it is far from obvious that the “yes or no” model is false and in fact it explains some of the data better (pdf).  Silberman offers no scientific reason for his choice, and he doesn’t define the underlying concepts clearly enough to outline exactly what is at stake.  Silberman argues that the spectrum models are ethically superior and more humane, but that is an unjustified presumption and it also does not settle the substantive dispute.  In any case both models are capable of accommodating either respectful or disrespectful attitudes toward autistic people.

3. For a on autism, there is oddly little discussion of what autism is or might be.  That is author’s prerogative of course, but it means the book doesn’t offer much of a framework for judging the research history of autism, as it attempts to do.

4. Silberman devotes an entire chapter to the movie “Rain Man,” and in part the movie’s main role model, namely Kim Peek.  Yet the text fails to note it eventually turned out that Peek was not in fact autistic but instead probably had FG syndrome.  This is another instance of the book’s tendency to prefer a good story over the facts.  And that Peek was so ingloriously railroaded into the autism category is part of the actual story there (Dustin Hoffman played a role in doing that), yet that is a mistake which Silberman himself essentially repeats.

I hate to rain on the parade of this book because a) I love the topic, b) the author’s research is impressive, and c) the book is genuinely humane and tolerant and it will have an almost entirely positive impact on popular discourse.  Still, I think that the original organizing themes in the work are mostly wrong.

And oddly, for all its praise of autism and autistic ways of thinking, the style of the book is remarkably non-autistic.  It’s full of long stories and blah blah blah, rather than getting to the point.

Here is a review from Nature.  Carl Zimmer interviews Silberman.  Here is The Economist review.  Here is a related podcast.  Here is the Jennifer Senior NYT review.  Here is Silberman’s LATimes piece.  Here is a Morton Ann Gernsbacher review.  Here is The Guardian.  Here is The Atlantic.  Here is a PLOS interview with Silberman.

It’s an interesting read, but I don’t think you can trust what’s in there.


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