Notes on Neurotribes by Steve Silberman

2022 March 20th (1/1)

Quick notes on some things that stood out to me when listening to the audiobook of Neurotribes, aside from the narrator's charming penchant for voicing every "character" in the appropriate regional accent).

First of all, some notes regarding the book's positioning relative to autistic self-advocacy. The book is firmly on the side of self-advocates, and states up-front that it favours an outlook that values neurodiversity rather than pathologising difference. A quick DuckDuckGo search reveals a number of pissed-off autism parents who express the common complaint, that in depathologising autism, this book disregards the awful effects that autism has as a "disease".

Side-note: I always want to be sympathetic to these objections, because as a late-discovered autistic person I do not have the same experiences as those who would be more likely candidates for diagnosis as children in the 1990s, whose experiences would have been much more intense and distressing. But the proponents of this view never waste much time in revealing their real locus of concern: in one such post, the first example given of these terrible symptoms of autism-as-disease is not the autistic person's intensely painful anxiety or struggle with sensory distress, but their penchant for ripping open feather pillows and making a mess of the autism parent's nice berber carpet.

At the same time, Silberman does not necessarily tell the same story that you would hear just by reading blog posts online from people within self-advocacy movements. This is a real strength of the book, and provides some degree of confidence that the conclusions that Silberman reached were based on a compassionate and engaged review of the historical evidence, rather than a narrative that serves the goals of a specific movement or advocacy group. Some particularly illuminating examples were:

A striking aspect of this book that I haven't seen acknowledged elsewhere is how it points to a neurodiversity-affirming history of science and technology. A surface-level reading of this is that autism is instrumentalised as a useful variance that produces good scientists, echoing the statements of Hans Asperger. The choice to have one of the earliest sections of the book be an account of the life of famed scientist Henry Cavendish is a powerful one, and provides a sympathetic anchor point for subsequent stories about the challenges and joys of parents raising autistic children. Through this arrangement of stories, it quickly becomes clear that the impact and presentation of autism is shaped in dialogue with a person's context, including socio-economic privilege and prevailing discursive trends. Later in the book, changes to our shared socio-technical world become the focal point for changes in how autism is perceived and how autistic people self-organise.

THE EMERGENCE OF E-MAIL, electronic bulletin boards, Usenet newsgroups, Internet Relay Chat, America Online, and ultimately the World Wide Web provided a natural home for the growing community of newly diagnosed teenagers and adults, where they could interact at their own pace in a language that often felt more native to them than the spoken word.

The main purpose of this book's accounts of autistic figures in the history of science might be to illustrate this narrative about neurodiversity as a valuable contribution to society, but I believe it can also be read back on to the history of science itself, challenging common assumptions about the motivations behind socio-technical change. Chapter Six, Princes of the Air, is a particularly important contribution to histories of technology, as it provides an account of developments such as ham radio, fandom, and internet message boards that is grounded not in entrepreneurialism and enterprise, but in the intrinsic pleasure of playing with machines and the need for multiple forms of social organisation.