Book review: NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently

NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently by Steve Silberman. Reviewed by the Salvesen Mindroom Centre team.


Date published: February 2016

Paperback price: £12.22

Link to book on Amazon website

Reviewer: Salvesen Mindroom Centre team

Reviewer expertise: Directly supporting families of neurodivergent children

What is the book about and who is it aimed at?

“NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently” was written by journalist Steve Silberman, exploring the history of autism and how this has shaped our understanding of autism today. The book is aimed at anyone who has an interest in how autism has been understood throughout the ages, and would be insightful to professionals, parents/carers or autistic adults alike.

A brief description of the book

With an introduction by neurologist Oliver Sacks, who very obviously was a significant influence on Silberman’s style and content, this book canters through the history of autism in the twentieth century. Silberman’s initial interest in autism stemmed from his work as a journalist for the tech magazine Wired and his curiosity around the prevalence of neurodiversity in the families of Silicon Valley workers. This sets the scene for a myriad of personalities and profiles throughout the book, from eccentric geniuses to communication exiles, that effectively demonstrate the idea of an autistic spectrum i.e. a continuum of neurological difference. The story of Leo Kanner, the ‘father’ of autism, is ambivalent due to questions over his intellectual integrity (was he really unaware of the work of Asperger in the thirties?) and the fact that he was a proponent of the ‘refrigerator mother’ model. But the development of parents groups and – finally – the point where autistic people were enabled to self-organise and advocate for themselves, is fascinating.

Is the content in line with best practice or research evidence?

In Neurotribes, Silberman does not attempt to offer opinion or advice on the developing understanding of autism (or indeed the broader context of neurodiversity) rather, in telling the stories of key people in its development, he charts a history of the way both have been understood, and the ways in which the professional world and others have responded and influenced this. Any history is, of course, influenced by the lens through which the author views a subject and continuing research will always bring to light things that had been previously unknown. The chapters dealing with the work of Hans Asperger and the influence of eugenics on his theories and practices are a point in case. This book gives an invaluable insight into the lives and thinking of the people that have influenced and developed our current understanding of autism and neurodiversity.

Would this book be helpful for its target reader?

Neurotribes is essential reading for anyone with a clinical, professional, or personal interest in autism and the human mind.  Silberman’s comprehensive journey through the timeline of autism reveals a hidden, often shocking history. Blending meticulous research with a humanising, sensitive and nuanced approach based on real stories, the book attempts to untangle many of the scientific and societal debates, attitudes, myths, misconceptions, and viewpoints surrounding autism.  By tracking this historical legacy, Silberman not only deepens the reader’s understanding of the contemporary issues and challenges that still impact on the autistic community today, but also provides a compelling case for recognising the value of the neurodiversity movement.

Neurotribes is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in developing a deeper understanding of the history of autism and the evolution of the neurodiversity movement.  However, it is worth noting this is a lengthy, detailed and complex book.

What is your final, overall opinion on the book?

In terms of being a history, it is limited in time, mainly the last century, and, being focused in the main on the USA and the UK, geography. But it was a hugely enjoyable read and the depth of biographical detail seems relevant, in the same way as Sacks took the time to get to know his patients intimately. The analogy of minds being a bit like computer operating systems was useful and has stayed with us. You might be running Linux, Windows or MacOs ; they all work but perhaps are better at different tasks. For example, Temple Grandin, probably the most famous autistic person, said if she wasn’t autistic, she wouldn’t have been able to come up with the ideas she’s had in designing plans for livestock facilities. Another sticky story was the young person who found musical notes as a way to communicate – his ‘human operating system’ decoded, allowing for communication where there was none before. Maybe there are many operating systems we just haven’t cracked yet?