Magazine article The Spectator

'Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter about People Who Think Differently', by Steve Silberman - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter about People Who Think Differently', by Steve Silberman - Review

Article excerpt

Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter about People who Think Differently Steve Silberman

Allen & Unwin, pp.544, £16.99, ISBN: 9781760113636

Steve Silberman's stunning new book looks across history, back to Henry Cavendish, the 18th-century natural scientist who discovered hydrogen, Hugo Gernsbach, the early-20th-century inventor and pioneer of amateur 'wireless' radio, and countless other technically brilliant but socially awkward, eccentric non-conformists, members of the 'neurotribe' we now call the autism spectrum.

He argues passionately for the 'neurodiversity' model rather than the medical disease model, for society to stop trying to 'cure' or 'normalise' those with autism, but to recognise them as neurologically differently wired, to accept difference, and support their disabilities when these surface in certain environments. His book could serve as a manifesto about extending dignity and human rights for people with autism, just as society has now done with other neurotribes such as the deaf, left-handed or gay. It is for society to respond to his challenge.

But who would have thought that a book about the history of the puzzling condition of autism would also contain a story about a doctor working in a clinic under the unimaginably horrific conditions of the Nazi eugenic cleansing policies? Nested within this highly original book is a chapter intriguingly entitled 'What Sister Viktorine knew'. Sister Viktorine was a nun who worked with the paediatrician Professor Hans Asperger in the Children's Clinic at the university hospital in Vienna in the 1930s. Today we know Asperger's name because a syndrome -- a part of the autism spectrum -- is named after him. Silberman takes us back to Vienna to properly understand Asperger, giving us a rare glimpse into his clinic.

Vienna, once the home of Sigmund Freud, was known for a Jewish community dating back to the 12th century and the music of the Jewish composer-conductor Gustav Mahler, until the Nazis banned it. In the 1920s, more than 200,000 people in Vienna (ten per cent of the population) were Jewish. Twenty years later almost all had been killed or deported. Now zoom in to see Hans Asperger working in the Children's Clinic in the excellent University of Vienna Hospital. This was no ordinary clinic, and Silberman argues that it was a century ahead of its time. It was created in 1911 by a doctor, Erwin Lazar, who, instead of seeing children with special educational needs as being 'broken' or as having an 'illness', saw them as needing different teaching methods more suited to their own learning styles.

Lazar's progressive pedagogy was based on the 19th-century concept of Heilpadagogokit , or 'therapeutic education', and his special education unit was known as the Heilpadagogokit Station. Hans Asperger worked there with Sister Viktorine using art, drama, music, literature and nature study. The antithesis of a custodial institution, it was a place where children and teenagers could discover their potential.

Silberman describes one of the children, Gottfried K, a nine-year-old boy who cried at the smallest change in his routine, was terrified of other children, was socially unaware and socially awkward, took people's words literally and was teased by his peers mercilessly. He was 'obsessed' with rules, laws and schedules. When given an IQ test, asking him to say what a 'ladder' and 'staircase' had in common, he 'failed' by pointing out the differences that to him were far more important. Asperger saw more than 200 children with Gottfried's profile. Some rocked back and forth or repeated the same phrases over and over. Some lined up their toys in strict patterns and would throw a tantrum if these were disturbed.

Silberman reminds us what was happening in the University of Vienna when Asperger submitted his thesis in 1943: 'The beautiful city of Vienna had become an abattoir of surreal brutality. …

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