NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman describes the history of autism from its first recognition by the medical establishment and earliest parent advocates to its present day definition, rates and advocacy concerns.
Silberman introduces readers to the early characters in this story, particularly Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger. Describing not only their personal traits, but also the historical contexts in which they made their observations, the author leads readers to an understanding of how some of the earliest descriptions and definitions of the condition affected the field — and its progress, or lack thereof — for years thereafter.
The story continues with a description of the re-focusing of the field of psychiatry itself and the evolution of the so-called DSM, an increasingly relied upon clinical manual for practitioners. Indeed, these “behind-the-scenes” changes in the field of psychiatry directly resulted in a broader definition of the disease and the oft-perceived “autism epidemic.” Silverman takes time to show readers how the divergence between Kanner’s and Asperger’s original definitions set the stage for the broadened DSM definition of the spectrum to identify many more cases of the condition.
Perhaps most interesting are the characters Silberman describes throughout the book. Characters with eccentricities who may or may not have been identified as being on the spectrum, but some of whom went on to accomplished careers, particularly in the sciences, engineering and computers. Silberman’s theme skillfully woven throughout the narrative culminates with an articulate discussion related to the fine genetic line between genius and the autism spectrum concluding with the wonderfully thought-provoking notion that civilization as a whole would suffer without these uniquely equipped brains that can often focus on, understand and complete projects in a way that most of us cannot.