I recently began reading the book “In a Different Key: The Story of Autism” by John Donvan and Caren Zucker. Given the fortuitous coincidence that Steve Silberman recently published a book (Neurotribes) on the same subject I thought that it would be worthwhile comparing both efforts. Overall I thought that Steve Silberman’s journalistic integrity was compromised by an overt bias in getting the Neurodiversity message across to his readers at the cost of massaging historical facts.
Mr. Silberman has received a lot of publicity regarding Neurotribes and his work won the prestigious Samuel Johnson Award. Among many interviews, one with The Financial Times on 11/6/15, stands out. In answering a question by a reporter Mr Silberman said, “As a writer, my worst fear is writing something that I think is good but that someone who really knows the field knows is mawkish newbie poppycock”. Mr. Silberman’s fears have come true and his own words aptly describe the value of his work and literary contribution.
As I have said before (bit.ly/20XerV3), according to Mr. Silberman, “…the history of autism is one of heroes and villains. In Neurotribes Leo Kanner is given the distinction of being dressed with the dark cloak of a villain. Indeed, Kanner is depicted as an ostentatious, if not pedantic, academician who inexcusably blamed parents for their children’s misfortune by coining the term refrigerator mothers. Silberman’s provides a glimpse into Kanner using tinted glasses. Indeed in concluding the work we must presume that Kanner was a fraudulent researcher who evidently plagiarized the work of Asperger. In all of this, Asperger remains a saint, the hero of the story, who barely survived the Nazi regimen while remaining a good Catholic man. In this role Asperger is portrayed as the embodiment of Neurodiversity ideals. All of the above assertions, the core of Mr. Silberman’s book, are incorrect or unsustainable and only reflect his personal bias.” I have already given evidence that counters Mr. Silberman’s perspective on Leo Kanner (bit.ly/20XerV3).
I realize that the title of this blog is worded in strong terms and that the same may be misconstrued by some readers. The title was meant as a play on words with “Neurotribe” and the fact that his anointed saint of the Neurodiversity movement was a Nazi sympathizer. Indeed, Asperger (aka Silberman’s mentor) rose through the Nazi ranks to occupy different positions of prestige within the government while passing the scrutiny of officials as to his personal ideologies. Despite of this Asperger’s role in the Nazi movement is absolved by Mr Silberman; “The most important lesson is not that brutal regimes like the Third Reich enable evil men to do evil, but that they are able to compel even well-intentioned people to do monstrous things” (n.pr/1NlHQ0r). In disingenuous fashion Mr. Silberman provides counter evidence to Asperger’s Nazi involvement by claiming that the Gestapo came twice to arrest him. This account was based on Asperger’s own assertions. As stated in my previous blog, and corroborated in Donvan and Zucker’s new book, this was a common way for many people in the postwar era to distance themselves from the Nazis.
Among known monstrosities, Asperger signed a letter condemning a little girl, Herta Schreiber, to the Spiegelgrund facility. Herta died after 2 months of poisoning with Phenobarbital. The drug depressed her consciousness making her choke on her own body fluids. As liquid filled her lungs little Herta slowly suffocated. Her death certificate read pneumonia as cause of death. In 1942 Asperger was the senior pediatrician in a commission that reviewed the health status of 210 children in an Austrian institution. Thirty-five of the children were deemed by Asperger as “non-educable”. The consequences of such a description was well known to members of the commission; it was their death warrant. To my knowledge the charges against Asperger were never disputed even by members of the hospital where he worked.
Contrary to Mr. Silberman I do not defend or condone these murderous actions. Mr. Silberman’s callousness is articulated in his book Neurotribes where he glorifies autism by exalting its gifts but failing to emphasize its handicaps, drawbacks or comorbidities. This fact is agreed upon by Mr. Silberman himself who in a Forbes magazine interview stated that he had left out the diaper wearers and head bangers because, “If we live long enough, we all become ‘diaper wearers’ eventually…Disability is a part of the human experience.” Again, this is NOT the case. Head banging or wearing diapers is not part of our human experience, no matter the age of the person. Mr. Silberman should stop callously minimizing some of the symptoms observed in autism spectrum disorders. As is now too common to Mr. Silberman his statements are insulting to those who are most seriously disabled and to the families who are taking care of them.
It seems that Mr. Silberman knew of the existence of documents proving Asperger’s involvement with the Nazi’s eugenics movement. Although no explanation is provided as to why this was not mentioned in his book, he now claims that future editions will clarify this fact. This new edition will have to be extensively re-written. Silberman’s attempt at character assassinating Leo Kanner has to be revised. Kanner was a compassionate clinician and an advocate for better services and accommodations for disabled individuals. The suggestion in Neurotribes that he slighted Asperger by not mentioning him for the rest of his career is false. Kanner did mention Asperger at least twice in published records. The suggestion that he stole the diagnosis of autism from Asperger is equally false. Both Kanner and Asperger believed that based on the clinical presentation of their respective patients that they had described different conditions. In the same tone, contrary to the suggestion in Neurotribes, Asperger was not keen on diversifying or broadening his diagnosis scheme. There are also the many little mistakes that make Neurotribes a difficult read to those who are aware of the literature, e.g., Asperger never used the term “Little Professors”. Maybe it is not a revised edition that needs to be written but a completely new book…Mr. Silberman should check his mailbox regularly. He may soon find a letter retracting the Samuel Johnson award.
Personally I agree wholeheartedly with the aims of Neurodiversity to provide necessary accommodations. This is something that both parents and disabled individuals have been doing together for a long time, way before Neurodiversity began. However, I also see the need for further research and treatment for those who need the same.
In the future I will provide a better criticism of the book, “In a Different Key: The Story of Autism”. At present I just wanted to offer a contrast to Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes. I exhort the reader to buy both books, read them, and come to their own conclusions.