By Chet Yarbrough
Neuro Tribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity
Written by: Steve Silberman
Narration by: William Hughes
“Neuro Tribes” reminds one of the gambling phrase “the easy way and the hard way”. On a Las Vegas craps table, rolling two die with the same number and repeating it is the hard way. From Steve Silberman’s story, parents successfully raising a child with autism is the hard way because the odds are stacked against them. This may not be a great analogy but Silberman shows that parents have to work harder to understand and nurture a child who suffers from any one of the many variants of autism.
Silberman tends to name drop famous people who have never been diagnosed as autistic, but exhibit some of the characteristics of autism. Silberman offers brief biographies of Henry Cavendish, Nikolo Tesla, Paul Dirac, and others. Not every autistic person is a genius but Silberman’s point is that a person who may have social communication difficulties, obsessive/compulsive behaviors, or attention issues have in many cases become incredibly valuable to society. To suggest autism implies anything less is a slippery slope toward abandonment, psychiatric incarceration, concentration camps, medical castration, and threatened individual or collective extermination.
Silberman recounts the history of people who do not fit within social conventions. In some well-known instances these non-conformists are isolated, sterilized, and/or murdered.
They are classified as developmentally or intellectually inferior human beings to be eliminated by society for their aberrant physical abilities or mental faculties. One may think this is a description of Hitler’s Germany but Silberman recounts the story of the U. S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Buck v. Bell.
In 1927, no less than a giant of the U. S. Supreme Court, Justice Oliver Wendell Homes, Jr. writes the majority opinion that says compulsory sterilization of the intellectually disabled is not a violation of the Due Process clause of the 14th amendment. Common sense, if not history, shows that intellectual ability, by any measure, is a small part of what a human being is or can be. The very idea that there is a criterion that objectively measures intellectual capability is repugnant. Mrs. Buck is involuntarily incarcerated and Mrs. Buck’s daughter is sterilized based on a 1924 Virginia law. The United States reportedly sterilized 60,000 American men and women through the 1970s (See January 2016 Newsweek report).
Silberman offers a short history of the growth of Eugenics. The idea is, like a patch of peas, human beings can be bred to eliminate any undesirable characteristics. No civilizations’ hands seem clean. Silberman reminds reader/listeners of the child euthanasia program in Germany and how a German family’s support of Hitler leads to a request that their child be euthanized because of physical deformity. It is estimated that “…5,000 children were victims of this program” (see Wikipedia “Child euthanasia in Nazi Germany).
Silberman reports on the diagnostic discovery of autism by Hans Asperger in the 1940 s. Asperger’s storied career includes association with the Nazi Party that is both reprehensible and insightful. In defining autism, Asperger suggests children with the malady are of little social value. This categorization of human beings feeds Hitler’s extermination of handicapped and mentally challenged children and adults. Despite this horrendous consequence, Asperger’s careful examination of autistic behavior provides insight to its symptoms and potential treatments.
Silberman notes Asperger’s prescient understanding of autistic children’s needs. Autistic children need to be listened to and their behaviors analyzed to provide treatment that ameliorates social dysfunction. Though Silberman does not mention the Montessori school of education, Asperger suggests that autistic children should be educated in ways that reinforce their natural interests. Asperger, according to Silberman, had an uncanny knack of understanding what his patients were interested in and followed that lead to integrate them into society.
A part of Silberman’s story is about unscrupulous medical professionals that offer cures for autism that have nothing to do with science and everything to do with financial exploitation of parents that are overwhelmed by their child’s autism. These “doctors” provide bogus treatments like blood chelation to remove impurities that are alleged to cause autism. Silberman suggests there is no cure for autism. There is only the promise of amelioration with the hard work and understanding of parents and caregivers who appreciate the value of human life.
For parents, the hard way involves toleration of symptoms of autism while reinforcing those behaviors that comport with the innate abilities of their children. In the process of careful listening and observation, parents can reinforce socially acceptable behavior and diminish anti-social activity.
Silberman implies autistic human beings exist in every society. Symptoms of hyperactivity, singular focus on particular subjects, poor communication skills, antisocial behavior, lack of interest in mutual achievements or interests, and a lack of empathy are symptoms that exist in many human beings. One concludes from Silberman’s book that parents with an autistic child have a harder roll of the dice. Their rewards can be monumentally greater but the odds are against parental success. Not every autistic child will be a Cavendish, Tesla, or Dirac but one can choose to believer every child is a gift to be treasured for whatever they become.