A well-researched, readable report on the treatment of autism that explores its history and proposes significant changes for its future.
Silberman, a writer for Wired and other publications, explores the work of Hans Asperger, a Viennese pediatrician who saw a genetic root to the disorder, and Leo Kanner, a child psychiatrist in Baltimore whose work led to the “refrigerator mother” concept promoted and exploited by Bruno Bettelheim. Woven into his accounts of the clinical work and theories of these men are a wealth of sympathetic stories of parents and their autistic children. There’s even the story of the making of Rain Man, which featured Dustin Hoffman as an autistic man. The latest version of the Diagnosis and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders recently redefined autism as autism spectrum disorder, a single disorder having a wide range of symptoms and severity. Asperger’s syndrome, no longer in the DSM, is generally seen to be at the mild end of the spectrum. Silberman argues for the concept of neurodiversity, the idea that this disorder—and others like dyslexia and ADHD—represents naturally occurring cognitive variations that have contributed to the evolution of human culture and technology. As the author writes, people with autistic traits “have always been part of the human community, standing apart, quietly making the world that mocks and shuns them a better place.” In the closing chapters, the author acknowledges the emergence of autistic-run organizations, the impact of the Internet in providing a natural home for the growing community of newly diagnosed teens and adults, and a growing civil rights movement that doesn’t depend on hopes for a cure but seeks to help autistic people and their families live more productive and secure lives.
In the foreword, Oliver Sacks writes that this “sweeping and penetrating history…is fascinating reading” that “will change how you think of autism.” No argument with that assessment.