Autism Acceptance grows every time a non-verbal child finds his voice and can tell us his thoughts and feelings. It shines through every time a parent or caregiver understands that autism is something to work with, not try to cure. It's there when we listen to Autism Self-Advocates, and it's there every time someone publishes a book that encourages the world to embrace neurodiversity.
Steve Silberman's NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and The Future of Neurodiversity is exactly that kind of book. It's the book I wish I'd read first when my son Liam, a non-verbal 7-year-old with autism who has many challenges, first got his diagnosis 4 years ago. And it's the book that I think should be required reading for every parent, teacher, therapist, and person who wants to know more about autism. Here's why:
It offers a wide-lens view of the history of autism.
Too often it's said that autism is a 21st-century epidemic and that it's a fairly new condition. Silberman's book shows, in exquisite detail, how wrong this assumption is. Using narrative, he paints portraits of many famous people throughout history who've been on the spectrum, and he also examines many of the pivotal clinicians who helped shape the way we diagnosis, think about, and view autism. All of this history fascinated me, and it helped me see my son as much more historically situated than many other accounts I've read.
It tells stories about families who've struggled through a battery of treatments and arrived at acceptance.
I started reading this book in the wee hours of the morning as my son bounced and chattered nearby. I was mentally and physically exhausted, but as I read about one family's life with a child much like my son—from diagnosis, to worry over vaccines, through shady biomedical interventions, and about daily struggles, adaptations, and joys—I felt connected to and strengthened by their journey.
It details how people with autism have been mistreated and marginalized, and suggests how that colors of our views of autism today.
I'm not going to lie—there are parts of this book that are very, very hard to read. I wept as I read about the Nazi's deliberate, scientific extermination of over 200,000 people with disabilities. All I could think, as I read through my tears, was: "that could have been my child." And the thought took my breath away. And it also made me realize how much of the rhetoric used to justify such crimes lingers still in things like calling children with autism a "burden" or saying the disorder is "stealing our children." This section of the book made me reaffirm my commitment to giving my son the best life possible, to seeing him as fully human, and to treating him always with dignity and respect.
It sifts through the many camps in the autism community and argues for neurodiversity.
There's a lot of anger in the autism community and a lot of disagreement about how to approach the disorder, how to spend funds (cure or care?), and many other elements. It can be confusing, and Neurotribes does a good job making sense of the many conversations about autism. Silberman also firmly agrees (as do I) that we should be listening to autistic voices and promoting autism as difference, not deficit, which is the heart of embracing neurodiversity.
It offers hope.
Parenting a child with autism is hard. I know—my son struggles daily with problem behaviors caused by his inability to communicate, he doesn't sleep much, and sometimes it's nearly impossible to see the gifts his unique neurology bring through all of his challenges. But the gifts are there. And reading a book like Neurotribes and learning more about autistic adults like Temple Grandin or Ari Ne'eman reminds me to hope. To believe in my son. To believe in his future. To love him and support him for exactly who he is. And to keep working to create a world where he can have the support he needs and the respect he deserves throughout his life.