Review of Neurotribes


Are you interested in understanding how autism emerged as a diagnosis? How the theories of underlying causes of autism determined the interventions available? Why Autism Spectrum Disorder has become such a prevalent diagnosis? If so, this is the book for you.

Neurotribes is an in-depth history of the emergence of the diagnostic category “Autism” from the early 1900’s to the present. The author, Steve Silberman, describes the major theorists and their interventions. He also chronicles the journeys of individuals with autism and their families over the last century, and how their lives were affected by the theories of the day. This history is fraught with misunderstandings, desperation, cruelty and quackery. Some of which persists today. 

As I read the book, I was often flooded with memories of my own experiences and the accompanying emotional responses. The book clarified my own journey. My first experience with autistic children came in 1970 where I saw two children in a New York mental institution.  They were “warehoused” and had no stimulation. Upon seeing this, I was overcome with great sadness. I next saw two wonderfully unique children on the spectrum as a therapist in the Minneapolis Public Schools. By 1992, when the educational category of autism had been approved, the flood gates were opened. Since then, I have had the privilege to work with many wonderful children on the spectrum and their families.

Despite the dark history and the current possibilities for misunderstanding and quackery, the author provides a view of “neurodiversity” which encourages us as a society to embrace human differences and assure that people with learning differences and their families have access to the resources they need in order to lead full lives and pursue their own happiness.

The book was well researched and written. It provided a wealth of information about autism. The author ended with a strong message that I hope we are able to pursue as a global community. In my experience as a professional who works with families, I see so much potential in this message and the “neurodiversity” movement.

When we embrace an individual as “different, not less,” we approach them in a markedly different way. Instead of seeing deficits, we see gifts and instead of seeing limitations, we see potential. When that shift occurs, true success is possible.

Research is an essential part of the equation. As we interpret and apply research to the interventions we develop for autism, we must infuse it with the underlying idea of diversity. Silberman shows, through his history of autism, that how we view these individuals shapes how we apply and even initiate research. It is through the lens of acceptance that we develop interventions that transform lives.

Author: Kathy

Kathy, MA, OTR, works with families living with autism, using her expertise in occupational therapy to inform her whole family interventions. She has been working through organizations and public education for over 40 years. Read her full bio here.

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