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".
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:
- Descrisption of the emergence of organisations such as ANI and ASAN, and rich description of these movements' successes and their methods of engaging with each other as well as with autism clinicians and parents.
- Strong criticism of behaviourism and misguided impulses among "autism parents" online that ultimately lead to abuse and harm, but also highlighting extremely valuable contributions by autism parents, thus avoiding the simplistic dichotomy of "actually autistics vs. autism parents" and instead pointing to examples of shared values and alliance.
- Close engagement with the social and historical conditions that produced pathologisation and care at the same time, giving more nuance to the story of Hans Asperger and also directing attention to the eugenicist ideologies that underpinned a great deal of autism research in early-mid 20th century America.
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.