Zoom Autism Magazine Issue 6 - Page 52

CANDID BY MARIPAT ROBISON Neuro Tribes An interview with Steve Silberman A ward-winning science journalist Steve Silberman’s book Neuro Tribes -The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity is a New York Times bestseller that recently won the 2015 Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction. I caught up with Steve at the college of William & Mary, where he joined the Olitsky Family Foundation Neurodiversity Speaker Series. MP: Congratulations on winning the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction. It’s the first science book ever to win that prize. How do you think that “first” is important? Silberman: It opens the door for other science books. My book was an attempt to fuse science, literature and history because I knew early on that it was going to be a long book, and if it didn’t ‘read well,’ people wouldn’t be able to absorb it all. ----MP: Neurotribes required exhaustive research: historic, scientific and anecdotal. Can you describe a bit of your process for each of these areas? Silberman: When I was planning the project, I originally intended that it would have more hard science, neuroscience, in it. However, the state of autism science changed so rapidly. One of the things that plagues autism science is a not just different findings, but contradictory findings. So one neuroscientist will say: “There’s too much white matter!” And then the next week it’s, “There’s too little white matter!” So I wanted to delve through all this history to 52 ZOOM Autism through Many Lenses find, in a sense, the eternal truths of autism and write about those. As a neurotypical writer, I was aware that I could never write about autism with the authority of someone like Temple Grandin, or the young generation of self-advocates, because I don’t have the experience of living inside an autistic mind. So it was very important to listen to as many autistic people as possible. ----MP: Before you wrote the iconic 2001 “The Geek Syndrome” article in Wired Magazine, what did you know about autism? Silberman: Very little. I really had to start from the ground up. Luckily, I lived just a couple blocks away from one of the best medical libraries in the country: the University of California San Francisco Medical School. I made many trips to read papers and journals and really dig deep into the history of autism. I read papers on genetics, toxicology, psychiatry, and so I educated myself. ----- ----MP: What do you think are the most important messages in Neuro Tribes, and what points would you like readers to come away with? Silberman: I think labels like autism, dyslexia and ADHD actually describe, almost, different human operating systems. Instead of thinking of these conditions as disorders or ailments or afflictions, epidemics or diseases, we should think of them as ways of being human that have been part of the human community for millennia. The parents’ community, the self-advocate community and the researchers don’t trust each other, and there are good reasons for that, having to do with decades of terrible messaging from clinicians about the causes of autism, like theories of bad parenting. Steve Silberman speaking at the Family Foundation Neurodiversity Speaker Series at William and Mary College. MP: Oliver Sacks wrote the introduction to Neuro Tribes. Was he an important mentor to you? Silberman: Yes, definitely. From Oliver Sacks, I got a very humane view of people who think differently because of conditions like Tourette’s syndrome, Parkinsonism and autism. I also got a way of writing about a medical condition where the person, not the condition, is in the foreground. Sacks told me, “You must write your book,” and I took that very seriously. I would say Neuro Tribes was homage to his work. ZOOM Autism through Many Lenses 53