“Neurotribes” by Steve Silberman (Part 1 of 2)


“Autistic children have the ability to see things and events around them from a new point of view, which often shows inspiring maturity. This ability, which remains throughout life, can in favorable cases lead to exceptional achievements which others may never attain. Abstraction ability, for instance, is a prerequisite for scientific endeavor. Indeed, we find numerous Autistic individuals among distinguished scientists.”

Hans Asperger

One thing comes to my mind when I read the above quote. I sure wish I heard that when I was in high school. I have greatly appreciated the insight from Autism memoirists like John Elder Robison and Dr. Temple Grandin. The most important critics of our world perceptions about Autism are those who actually live with it.  Many people in the tech world know San Francisco resident Steve Silberman for his contributions to “Wired” magazine and his recent Ted talk. Aside from those worthy accomplishments, his recent book “NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity” continues to become his most recognizable.

Silberman’s inspiration behind writing this book was a technology conference that he attended back in 2000. However, this was not the typical corporate technology conference that you would find in a venue like Pittsburgh’s David L. Lawrence convention center. It took place on a cruise ship through Alaska’s beautiful Inside passage.

“In the past forty years, some members of this tribe have migrated from the margins of society to the mainstream and currently work for companies like Facebook, Apple, and Google. Along the way, they have refashioned pop culture in their own image; now it’s cool to be obsessed with Doctor Who – at any age. The kids formerly ridiculed as nerds and braniacs have grown up to become the architects of our future.”

Among the attendees of this cruise was Larry Wall, the creator of an open source programming language called Perl. Steve walked over to Larry and asked if they could meet at his home located in the heart of Silicon Valley. He accepted the invitation, only after warning Steve that he and his wife happen to have an Autistic daughter. Steve’s only introduction to Autism was from the award winning film “Rain Man.” He indicated that Raymond was “a memorable character, but the chances of meeting such a person in real life seemed slim.” That is still true in the 21st century. I certainly cannot count toothpicks at a glance or memorize a phone book because such impractical activities are uninteresting to me. Regardless, Steve soon discovered that Larry also exhibited several characteristics that would classify as “high functioning Autism” or Asperger’s Syndrome.

“As I chatted with Larry about his illustrious invention, a blub lit up on the wall behind us. He had replaced the chime on his clothes dryer with an unobtrusive bulb because the little ding! at the end of each cycle disconcerted him. Such tinkering seemed par for the course for a man whose code made it possible for a Perl hacker named Bruce Winter to automate all the devices in his house and have his email read to him over the phone – in 1998. It didn’t occur to me until much later that Larry’s keen sensitivity to sounds might provide a link between his daughter’s condition and the tribe of industrious hermits who invented the modern digital world.”

I look at figures like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Larry Wall. I realize they are more than just important figures in the development of computing and technology. They are important reminders of how far we have come with regards to recognizing Autism and Asperger’s. They are important reminders of how far the world has come with regards to encouraging these “brainiacs” and “nerds” to embrace their uniqueness by turning their skills into something marketable and rewarding. It certainly is true that we still have a long way to go with regards to challenging our society’s ignorant and negative mindset about being Autistic or “on the spectrum.” Before reading NeuroTribes, I never wondered what it took for our world to evolve into the belief that being different is cool. I must admit, this was an emotional journey for me to read about.

Adolf Hitler perceived the disabled as living “life unworthy of life.” The infamous dictator’s hatred towards the weak and feeble minded compelled him to enact Action T4 (German: Aktion T4.) This permitted involuntary euthanasia of the elderly, mentally or physically disabled, mentally distraught and the incurably ill. These “weak” and “feeble minded” children were tortured to death through starvation and forced overdose of medications. A nurse named Anny Wöbt testified against German psychiatrist Erwin Jekulius for the murder of her six year old son at the Am Spielgrund clinic.

“It was unambiguously clear from his remarks that he endorsed the entire operation against ‘life unworthy of life’ and that he was prepared to do whatever the Nazis demanded.” She begged Jekelius to at least grant her son a quick and painless death, and he promised to do that. On February 22, 1941, Alfred, six years old, perished of “pneumonia” at Am Spigelgrund. When Wödl viewed her son’s corpse, it was obvious that he had died in agony.”

This certainly is heavy material. The worst part of reading about these brutal “euthanasia crimes” was knowing that these children (most likely) could not have managed to escape the systematic abuse if an Autism diagnosis had actually existed. The general public did not even begin to recognize the term “Autism” until (approximately) the 1960s. Bruno Bettelheim sparked a lot of controversy in 1967 when he compelled the public and medical professionals to accept Leo Kanner’s “refrigerator mother” theory. He claimed that the child’s diagnosis was a result of the mother being “distant, cold and rejecting.” Parents commonly reacted to the revelation of their child’s diagnosis by institutionalizing them. However, there were many parents who refused to accept that as the “one and only” path for their future. They were willing to go the extra mile and provide for the child. Dr. Temple Grandin’s mother did that by introducing her to people who were willing to mentor and guide them along the way. This can be hard to do in our modern world. The main reason is because it continues to punish those who think differently. Nonetheless, it reminds us that there are people who genuinely care and they are the only ones who will truly matter!

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