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NeuroTribes Review

NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman

Neurotribes covers the history of societal attitudes toward autism, from when it was unheard of, to eugenics programs, the rise of anti-vaxxers, and finally the modern neurodiversity movement.


Nonfiction, neurodiversity, history


Going back to the earliest days of autism research and chronicling the brave and lonely journey of autistic people and their families through the decades, Silberman provides long-sought solutions to the autism puzzle, while mapping out a path for our society toward a more humane world in which people with learning differences and those who love them have access to the resources they need to live happier, healthier, more secure, and more meaningful lives.

Along the way, he reveals the untold story of Hans Asperger, the father of Asperger’s syndrome, whose “little professors” were targeted by the darkest social-engineering experiment in human history; exposes the covert campaign by child psychiatrist Leo Kanner to suppress knowledge of the autism spectrum for fifty years; and casts light on the growing movement of "neurodiversity" activists seeking respect, support, technological innovation, accommodations in the workplace and in education, and the right to self-determination for those with cognitive differences.


I learned much about autistic history from this. I found the chapter on fandom culture particularly interesting. Science fiction became a major outlet for autistic people and a way to connect, and the recognized founder of pulp science fiction magazines may have been autistic himself.

Many parts of the book were disturbing to read, mainly the parts covering eugenics, the locking away of autistic people into institutions, and the dark history and techniques of ABA theory (not to mention its connection to conversion therapy).

The book could have done better to cover the neurodiversity movement more. A long time is spent on the NTs who study autism, but not autistic people themselves. In the latter half a greater focus is placed on autistic perspectives, but I would have liked longer coverage of autistic culture. It is a rich and interesting culture that could have been explored more.

Also, the book is heavily focused on Europe and the US. A true history of autism wouldn’t be complete without focus on non-white cultures, which have had very different perspectives on autism. The leaving out of other cultures is the largest flaw of the book. It’s focus is on white, predominantly male autistics, and it is essential that we change this narrative.

So would I recommend it? Yes. It does a great job of introducing the concept that autism is a natural deviation of humanity and that the world should change to accommodate autistic people rather than forcing autistic people to change.

However, it certainly should not be your only resource for learning about autistic history. Read material by autistic people and especially seek out the voices of BIPOC autistic people. This is just one book detailing a people group that spans the world and all of human history.

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