A combination of mystery and proclivity for lightening storms of controversy surrounds autism and related conditions (e.g. Asperger’s.) On one hand, it seems like the number of cases has skyrocketed in the past few decades. On the other hand, it’s hard to tell because long after autism began to be seen as a condition in its own right, children were being diagnosed with a range of other conditions from schizophrenia to brain damage to just plain “being difficult.” So, the question of the degree to which autism is more prevalent versus being more visible and readily-diagnosed remains.
Tellingly, Silberman’s first chapter describes an 18th century English scientist named Henry Cavendish as a way of refuting the notion that Autism is a wholly new phenomenon. The appearance that Autism is new and growing at epidemic proportions has facilitated some spurious thinking, most famously the idea that childhood vaccinations cause of autism. [To be fair, it’s easy to see why parents would want to find a simple, single-point cause, given that one of the previous hypothesized causes (which turned out to be also wrong) was that autism was caused by cold and detached parenting.] However, decades of intense investigation without a consensus conclusion suggests that a simple, straightforward cause-effect dynamic is unlikely and that more complexity is involved.
But the controversy doesn’t stop there. As within the deaf community, an argument has been on the rise that autism shouldn’t be treated as a disability to be cured but rather a difference that can be managed and which offers strengths that can be leaned into. And one of the most intriguing aspects of Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome are the mental strengths that can accompany the condition. Anyone who’s seen “Rain Man” (a chapter is devoted to it) will be aware of how savant-like mental capabilities can accompany the immense social difficulties displayed by people on the Autism Spectrum. Silberman takes on all of this and more as he presents a history of Autism.
The book is arranged into twelve chapters. As mentioned, the first chapter proposes that autism is nothing new and can be seen if one looks closely into select biographies, such as that of Henry Cavendish. While appearances in the historical record may be rare, the fact that some autistics have great mental capacities has resulted in instances in which they produced results so impressive that they remain noteworthy across the ages, despite the fact that such people were often socially isolated. The book next looks at modern-day examples of autistics who are changing the world. After that, having hooked the reader, Silberman proceeds chronologically through the advancements in understanding of autism — giving extensive attention to the work of Hans Asperger, Leo Kanner, and Bernard Rimland — but also addressing others such as Oliver Sachs and Bruno Bettelheim. In addition to discussing the research (which presents many of its own controversies,) Silberman shows how societal views of autism have changed from being considered either a form of retardation or of psychosis to being seen as a difference in abilities that should be respected.
Along the way, one learns a bit about the history of eugenics, and not just among the Nazis. (Hans Asperger’s reputation was sullied by the widespread belief that he’d worked with the Nazis.) Silberman explores the Second International Eugenics Congress that was hosted by the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. We also learn about the movie “Rain Man” and how Dustin Hoffman prepared for the role, and how the movie became a game-changer for the autistic community.
The final chapter shifts gears from what has been happening with autism to how to move forward. It presents the idea of neurodiversity, and considers how it can be accommodated. There is a brief epilogue that revolves around the son of Bernard Rimland. Rimland, while already a psychologist, shifted into the study of autism because he had an autistic child of his own.
I found this book quite intriguing. It is a fascinating exploration of the spectrum of states that we think of as autism. If you have any interest in the mind and neurological conditions, you’ll likely find it an educational read.