By Tracy Hed, Ph.D., Sheridan County School District #2, WSPA’s Ethics/Professional Standards Chair

I first heard of the book, Neurotribes  on a Fresh Air podcast, in which Terry Gross interviewed the author, Steve Silberman.  Their conversation was so interesting, I immediately bought the book.  

(Here is the link to the Fresh Air interview from two years ago.)

 The book did not disappoint.  In fact, I’m on my second copy, as the colleague I loaned my first book to refuses to return it, because he finds it so important in his work with ASD children!   Not only is the book a fascinating account of the history of Autism Spectrum Disorder, it is immensely readable.

 While I knew of most of the research on ASD, I did not know the turns and twists in the formulation of the diagnosis over time.  I did not know how the diagnosis of Aspergers (now part of Autism Spectrum Disorder, of course) was completely derailed from the collision of the work of Hans Asperger and his clinic specializing in these children with the Third Reich.  

A fascinating (and very sobering) fact is that the first public talk on autism was in 1938, in which Hans Asperger spoke to an audience of Nazis.  He was trying to save his patients – children who fell on what we now call the autism spectrum – who were in danger of being sent to Nazi extermination camps.  Asperger’s clinic and work was eventually shut down and many of his workers, who were Jewish, lost their lives in concentration camps.

Because of the total destruction of Asperger’s clinic and work, the diagnostic formulation of autism shifted solely to the work of Leo Kanner in the USA.  As Sieberman writes, “Asperger survived the war, but his concept of autism as a broad and inclusive spectrum (a “continuum”) that was ‘not at all rare’ was buried in the ashes of his clinic and the unspeakable memories of that dark time, along with his case records.  A very different conception of autism took place.” Kanner’s conception of autism was much more restrictive than Asperger’s, and only encompassed those that we would call “classically autistic” today.

Sieberman goes on to discuss how the confluence of the rediscovery of Aspergers work & the spectrum of neurodiversity came to intersect with the fears that vaccines were causing the sharp increase in those being diagnosed with autism.  However, he does so in a very compassionate way. Many of the parents and people who had become convinced that vaccines were the culprit in the “autism epidemic” were quite bright and well read, not the sort of “flat earth” conspiracy theorists they have often been labeled in hindsight.  

One fun part in the book is the author’s discussion of the importance the film “Rain Man” had in American and around the world.  Because of Dustin Hoffman’s Academy Award winning portrayal of Raymond Babbitt, based on a couple of real people diagnosed with autism, the general public better understood autism and better accepted those on the spectrum.  Sieberman goes into detail about the making of the movie, both in how the movie was written and how Dustin Hoffman came to play the role, basing his performance on one autistic man in particular.

Those are just a few highlights of this fascinating book – there is much more in its 546 pages to recommend it to anyone working with children on the autism spectrum.  It will help people develop a fuller and more compassionate understanding of those on the spectrum, and to serve these children better as a result. Definitely a book to add to your summer reading list!