Popular Health & Science Collection Book Review: NeuroTribes

The library is pleased to announce the new Popular Health & Science Collection – a pilot project that brings health and science books, written with the general public in mind, into the library. Topics range from inspiring stories of historical health professionals, to ways society and science influence each other. Interesting, informative, and a joy to read, these books have been selected to stimulate debate and discussion.

This month, Carolyn Ziegler, an Information Specialist from the Health Sciences Library reviews a book from our new collection.


NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman, winner of the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction in 2015, is a riveting and accessible book on the history of the diagnosis of autism. Silberman takes us through the medical and social history of autism which had been variously defined as feeble-mindedness, childhood psychosis, schizoid personality, and childhood schizophrenia, among others.

It’s always been considered a remarkable coincidence that two doctors, Hans Asperger and Leo Kanner, on opposite sides of the Atlantic would independently, and at roughly the same time (1943/44), use the word autistic to describe children with a pattern of unique behaviours  such as language impairment,  limited social insight, aloneness, and intense special interests.  Silberman uncovers the connections between the two researchers and describes their uniquely different conceptualizations of autism. Asperger wrote a paper about his experience with four hundred children at the University Children’s Clinic in Vienna who fell across an autism spectrum, choosing to profile four “high functioning” boys because the Nazis were actively killing children who were considered mentally inferior at that time. Rather than thinking of these children in terms of their deficits, he recognized the children’s “autistic intelligence” and potential. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Kanner published an article about what he considered a rare condition with strict diagnostic criteria. Unfortunately, Kanner was also part of a movement that blamed bad parenting and other psychoanalytic nonsense for the children’s behavior. Kanner’s view of autism had far-reaching implications for the diagnosis and treatment of autism, not to mention education and funding.

Later chapters in the book go into the history of autism in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, parents’ activism, applied behaviour analysis (including its misuse), and the controversy of the MMR vaccine. There’s also a compelling chapter on how the popular movie “Rain Man” came to be and its impact on society’s perception of autism. You might think this book would be a little dry and technical but I assure you, it’s fascinating. I still have a few more chapters to read and I am especially looking forward to the sections that celebrate neurodiversity.



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