Day after day, year after year, Henry Cavendish walked the same route in his London neighborhood of Clapham Common.
He was a painfully shy man, avoiding people as much as possible. Many people spoke of his most unusual ways, his personal eccentricities, and seemingly strange speech. Cavendish was obsessed with measurement; this led him to his astonishing contributions to the fields of chemistry, in which he was able to produce hydrogen and subject it to combustion with an electric spark, and physics, in which his calculations enabled later scientists to compute the mass of the Earth. It is here where award-winning author Steve Silberman begins his history of autism and looks to the future of neurodiversity.
However, autism would not become public knowledge until nearly three centuries later, in the early 1940s. A psychiatrist in Baltimore named Leo Kanner in 1943 wrote a seminal paper called “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact,” wherein he described a pathological condition among children who spoke little and were largely socially unresponsive. The picture that emerges of Dr. Kanner is one of a scholar relentlessly pursuing a career of fame. Notwithstanding the importance of his discovery, Kanner embraced the speculation that the “frosty” personalities of autistic children were the result of “cold,” aloof parenting. It would take parents advocating for their autistic children decades to fight their stigma, along with that of their children.
There was a second important “discovery” in the 1940s was in Vienna. A pediatrician by the name of Dr. Hans Asperger recognized the potential of
the children in his care who presented with the then mysterious condition that bears his name. In 1944, Dr. Asperger published his findings in an article, “Die Autistischen Psychopathen im Kindesalter (Autistic psychopathy in childhood). Silberman contends that Dr. Kanner must have known about his German-speaking colleague but for reasons uncertain chose to hide it. Soon thereafter, Asperger had to abandon the hospital where he worked and undertake work as a medic. He published a few papers in German in the 1960s and 1970s. Astonishingly, his critically important work remained untranslated until 1991. (That 1991 English translation, by a German psychologist living in Britain, Uta Frith, remains the only one.)
Hans Asperger is one of the main characters of NeuroTribes, and one of the most admired. Asperger had the insight to declare that although the autistic children in his care were developmentally and socially delayed, they had natural gifts of their own. Indeed, many of his “little professors,” as he called them, would go on to make names for themselves in academic endeavors. This was during a time when most children with any learning disability were consigned to a life in an institution. Even more remarkable was that Asperger advocated for the children in his care at a time when Nazi ideology dictated that people with disabilities were defectives, “not worth the bread to feed them,” a danger to the welfare of the “master race” who should, therefore, be exterminated. People with such ideas as Asperger’s were considered dangerous and punishable by death under the Nazi regime.
Silberman devotes most of one of his book’s chapters on how the extreme persecution of individuals with disabilities in Nazi Europe came to be. That insidious ideology had its roots in the eugenics movement, which started in the early twentieth century in the United States. At the time, the notion that people with favorable genes and should reproduce while those with “bad genes” should be prevented from doing so was respectable science, not fringe ranting. Eugenics would give racism scientific backing. In Germany, a young Adolf Hitler found himself tightly attracted to this science; most top officials of the Third Reich, Silberman points out, were scientists, physicians, and academics. These pages make for chilling reading.
Less chilling but still very disquieting, in addition to the “refrigerator parents” described earlier, we learn of a litany of crackpot theories, misinformation, and outright fraud perpetuated by opportunists and conspiracy theorists on parents desperate to help their autistic children and themselves. These range from chelation therapy, vitamin supplements, and electro-shock therapy to the vaccine hysteria that took more than two decades to be discredited and still crops up in public discourse. Parallel to that surreal history is are the valiant efforts of parents to advocate for their children, autistic adults to self-advocate and define their identity on their own terms (following such examples as Deaf culture and the LGBT community), and researchers such as Lorna Wing to create not a label, but an understanding of the autism spectrum to enable autistic persons come to term with their condition and the neurotypical world to better understand them. In other words, in the words of the subtitle that would appear on the later paperback edition, “How to think smarter about people who think differently.”
In NeuroTribes, veteran journalist Steve Silberman chronicles the history of autism and Asperger syndrome and the two physicians who first documented these conditions, so prevalent today but virtually unknown before World War II. Silberman argues for nothing less than the consideration of autism and Asperger syndrome as different ways of thinking, alternative ways in which the human brain works. This philosophy is known as neurodiversity, one embraced by much of the disability advocacy community. The idea, however, is not entirely new. A Viennese pediatrician by the name of Dr. Hans Asperger recognized the potential of the children in his care who presented with the then mysterious condition that bears his name… in 1943, a time when such ideas were dangerous and punishable by death under the Nazi regime. It’s a gripping history! Equally astonishing is that Asperger remained virtually unknown for decades after his ground-breaking paper, which was not translated into English until 1991; the book to the right remains the only English edition.