NeuroTribes:The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity




At the recommendation of a colleague and friend, I purchased NeuroTribes and In a Different Key: The Story of Autism at the same time and then spent months looking at them on my shelf. Would I ever read two large, dry books on the same subject? Finally, trusting the recommendation, I started to read NeuroTribes and was pleased to find out how wrong my assumption was.



   NeuroTribes goes from one interesting, well-told story to another. Most people who enjoy history and good stories will enjoy reading the book even if they are not interested in autism. The stories involve human struggle. They involve divisiveness within the medical community which make us wonder what is accepted now that will be recognized as misguided in the future. The book contains an interesting chapter on the history of psychiatry and the strategic series of revisions to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders which saved the profession. It is about people deceiving themselves and deceiving others, sometimes intentionally, and the consequences of this deception. It is about inadequate research trumpeted as dogma. It is about a generation of mothers of children with autism being incorrectly blamed for causing the condition and being told that they secretly hated their children. They were called “Refrigerator Mothers” and were subjected to psychotherapy while their children were institutionalized at the recommendation of their physicians. This inevitably halted their progress despite claims to the contrary. But the book is also about the power of people working together to change decades-old assumptions and the progress which has been made due to these efforts.

Rain Man 2

There is an entire chapter about the making of the movie “Rain Man”; all of the obstacles that had to be overcome; and some very interesting information about Dustin Hoffman. The book is about the change in the definition of autism from being a psychiatric condition to a disability and from being rare to probably being the single largest group in the world classified as disabled. It presents the unique abilities of many people who are on the autism spectrum; demonstrating that their traits are beneficial in many occupations and that they have made critical contributions in science and technology. Technology is facilitating communication for those with autism and enabling them to be a part of a community. Steve Silberman explains how neurotypicals have as much difficulty understanding the perceptions and processing of those on the autism spectrum as those on the spectrum have difficulty understanding why neurotypicals are so distractible, obsessively social, and deficient in attention to detail and routine. Why do neurotypicals prefer a world which is unpredictable and chaotic, perpetually turned up too loud, and full of people who have little respect for personal space? P. 471


The concept of neurodiversity is that conditions such as autism, dyslexia, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder should be regarded as naturally occurring cognitive variations with distinctive strengths that have contributed to the evolution of technology and culture rather than mere checklists of deficits and dysfunctions. P. 16 Attention can be improved; most people with dyslexia can learn to read; and most people with autism learn and adapt which is not the same as curing autism. While there are still reasons to research epigenetic factors which may be involved in the expression of genes for autistic traits, most people now agree that the primary goal of research should be to find out how to help people with autism and their families live happier, healthier, more productive and more secure lives.


NeuroTribes reminds us that eugenics was a movement that was very popular in the United States. After it was adopted by Hitler and turned into ethnic cleansing and the horror of what was done became known, movements developed in the United States to end ethnic, religious, and racial discrimination. Despite our ideals, our track record has not been admirable over the years at assimilating ethnic groups, religions, races, and those with disabilities. After years of decreasing crime rates, we are in a time of increasing anger, violence, and restrictions on respectful freedom of expression. Perhaps awareness of how this population has been misunderstood and how our misunderstanding has led to inappropriate treatment will be seen as an example. The book makes it clear that this is not easy or simple.


  • Photo Credit: Irene M. Anderson