Neurotribes: How the Cookie Crumbles?

First Bettelheim, now Silberman
-Manuel Casanova (2016)

It has been several months since the publication of Neurotribes and more data is constantly emerging about the contrived nature of the publication. The whole story pitting Kanner (the villain) against Asperger (the saint of Neurodiversity) is factually incorrect. The supposition that Kanner stole the idea/diagnosis from Asperger is falling apart. John Robison, a prominent Neurodiversity proponent, is distancing himself from Silberman and writing his own story after researching available facts. His conclusions speak to the lack of merit in the assertion that Kanner willfully stole anything from Asperger. Furthermore, as somebody who has actually read the literature, John professes a liking to Kanner and hopes to bring the latter’s achievements in both life and academia to light in future publications. At present many academicians, like Pat Howlin, Joe Piven, Bennett Leventhal, Olga Bogdashina, and Jim Harris are voicing their concerns for the undeserved acclaim Neurotribes has received. Incensed students of Lorna Wing take exception to having Neurotribes dedicated to their mentor when Silberman apparently is not able to decipher whether Lorna Wing was a psychologist or a psychiatrist.

It is true that Silberman apparently “discovered” that George Frankl went to work with Kanner after previously having worked with Asperger. From there on he formulated the grandiose idea that Kanner had stolen the diagnosis of autism from Asperger by having Frankl act as an intermediary. As a matter of fact Kanner acknowledged in his publications that Frankl worked with him at Hopkins. What is open to discussion is whether Frankl was able to mentor somebody of Kanner’s stature. Hopkins faculty members were talented clinicians with diverse training in a world-class academic institution with a rich European tradition. It seems quite likely that anybody at the Hopkins Department would have given Frankl a run for his money.

The Hopkins Psychiatry Department was established by Adolf Meyer and from early on developed a tradition of intermixing both European ideas of psychoanalysis with the biological foundations of neurology and neuropathology. This was the Department where Lauretta Bender (psychiatrist and neuropathologist) did her initial research before going to establish herself in New York as the world’s leading authority in childhood schizophrenia. Lauretta, a figure of great influence over Kanner, wrote one of Kanner’s academic obituaries. In their writings it is evident that they had a mutual admiration society. It was at Hopkins that Lauretta met Paul Schilder, MD, PhD her future husband. Paul, an Austrian psychiatrist who immigrated to the Unites States, worked along with Lauretta diagnosing and treating psychotic children and publishing over 300 articles before his untimely death.

At Hopkins Frankl was an interesting addition who could have received mentorship from others but probably not the other way around. His few years at the institution were rather undistinguished and his writings in regards to the emotional disconnect observed in some children denote some major confusion as to pathophysiological mechanisms. Although highly praised by Kanner, Frankl lacked the biological tradition forged at Hopkins and eventually moved on after a few years to head a small Child Psychiatry clinic in Kansas City.

Contrary to Silberman’s statement in Neurotribes, Kanner did give an opinion on Asperger’s contribution at least twice during his life. He believed that the conditions both them had described were different. Kanner described classic autism as being present at birth thus classifying the same as a neurodevelopmental disorder- in this belief he was unwavering. Asperger agreed with Kanner and believed his own cases represented a personality disorder developed or forged during the lifetime of the individual. He explained the use of the word psychopath as a personality disorder in the introduction of his article. Unfortunately, Uta Frith did not translate this section into her well-known English version.

While Kanner was taking steps to report his patients, Frankl was at a loss on how to describe the condition and whether it was in any way different from childhood schizophrenia. Contrary to Kanner and Asperger, Frankl never took a stance as to whether autism was a neurodevelopmental condition or a personality disorder. His interest, if anything, focused on non-idiopathic cases which differed remarkably from Kanner’s classical autism. Frankl never mentored Kanner because he had reached no mayor conclusions of his own and had no ideas to teach. His citation index (contrary to that of Kanner) was abysmal and his work was never acknowledged as being of potential significance. Indeed, it was Kanner who first brought up the subject of autism in a letter to the mother of his incept patient and later on developed a differential diagnosis as well as recognizing antecedents within the medical literature. As Kanner worked on his cases and prepared his publications, Frankl had already passed many years into oblivion. In a rather peculiar twist of fate Kanner is now being vilified for having employed Frankl rather than acknowledged for having saved his life.

What is odd about Asperger’s report is the fact that after seeing a significant number of cases, they were all males, higher functioning, and many had significant gifts and/or abilities. It now appears more evident that the bias in his series probably reflected the fact that the Third Reich (or Asperger himself) eliminated those who were primarily females, lower functioning and lacking gifts or useful abilities. Thus, although Asperger recognized the gifts in some autistic individuals he also disposed of those lacking the same. The parallel of the Nazi regime’s elimination of lower functioning individuals and Silberman’s willful lack of recognition towards the same individuals in Neurotribes is uncanny.

As stated in a previous blog, Mr. Silberman acknowledges that he left the more severely affected individuals out of his book because, “If we live long enough, we all become ‘diaper wearers’ eventually…Disability is a part of the human experience.” This is NOT the case. Head banging or wearing diapers is not part of our human experience, no matter the age of the person. In this Mr. Silberman, Asperger, and the Nazi regimen have a lot in common. It is easy to see why Silberman condones any murderous actions on part of Asperger (see:

Photograph: I came back during the weekend to discover that my grandson had once more been hospitalized. He is one of those «diaper-wearers» that Neurodiversity and Silberman willfully ignore. Their lack of empathy towards those who are less fortunate is appalling. See

Contrary to Silberman’s statements in Neurotribes it appears that physicians during Asperger’s time had to pledge allegiance to the Third Reich in order to practice medicine in larger institutions. The Austrian historian of Nazi atrocities Herwig Czech, has chronicled Asperger’s involvement in the Third Reich. The story is partially available in a German publication edited by Arnold Pollak and written in collaboration by Maria Asperger Felder, Herwig Czech, Helmut Groger, Francesca Happe, Kwthrin Hippler, Fritz Poustka, Roxane Sousek and Lorna Wing was entitled Auf den Spuren Hans Asperger. Unfortunately many details of the atrocity are lacking in the publication. In the near future Herwig Czech will be submitting the full and extensive details for publication in Molecular Autism. Hopefully the forthcoming Czech’s publication will be Silberman’s last nail on the coffin.

It seems that Steve Silberman did make contact a few times over the years with Herwing Czech, but never with probing insightful questions. Silberman was made aware of Asperger’s Nazi involvement but preferred not to mention it in his book. Donvan and Zucker also made contact with Czech establishing a long-term relationship with constant questions, document requests and verifications. This contrasts with Silberman’s primary preoccupation: when was Czech was going to publish his whole report? While probing into this aspect of Asperger’s life Silberman seemed to have a story already in mind and wanted to publish before Czech’s full report appeared in press. Indeed, people interviewed by Silberman for his book have said that, “he was in a hurry to publish first” (I have not been given permission to divulge names). Silberman was well aware of Donvan and Zucker’s efforts and wanted his story to hit the press as soon as possible. It is a pity, if Silberman had waited he could have learned from the efforts of investigative reporters like Donvan and Zucker and avoided writing the misconceptions now disseminated in Neurotribes.

For those interested in further readings on Neurotribes, please refer to the following blogs:

Neurotribe or diatribe?:

Steve Silberman and his tribe of Nazi sympathizers:

11 Respuestas a “Neurotribes: How the Cookie Crumbles?

  1. Manny, I would not say I am «distancing myself from Silberman.» I think it’s unfair to say I am distancing myself from either he and his book or John Donvan/Caren Zucker and their book. Both authors put their hearts and souls into their books and they deserve recognition for some major accomplishments even if one takes issue with some parts of either story.

    It would be more fair to say that those writers sparked my curiosity. Steve’s finding that Frankl made the journey from Vienna to the Kanner clinic was a striking piece of research. That was what led me to start my on research into how that happened, and that is the subject of my own upcoming paper.

    When my paper (that you reference) comes out I think readers will see that I have the highest regard for the work both authors did, and indeed my own paper would never have even begun without their foundations to build on. To the extent I offer a different story it’s because I built on their scholarship and new information led me to alternate conclusions. That’s as it should be, in both historical research and science.

    People say «hindsight is 20-20» and that’s sort of the situation with my own forthcoming story. I build upon a great deal of work published in Neurotribes and Different Key, and ask, «Could there be more to the story?» It should not be seen as critical or surprising to suggest there is.

    As for Asperger . . .

    The Donvan/Zucker book describes for the first time in English some of Asperger’s wartime activities. The striking point in their book is that Asperger was never a hero in Austria. He wasn’t a villain either; he was what Czech and others called «part of the apparatus.» What’s interesting is how Asperger went from being a morally ambiguous figure in Austria to being a hero in America. My own paper does not comment on that, and neither book really answers it fully. That’s a question for the future.

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    • Thank you for your comments. I thought initially that distancing was a proper terms as you are drawing a different conclusion from Silberman. However, the point is well taken. I hope I have not offended you. As an aside, I never saw anything in your writing that could say you were at odds with Donvan and Zucker.

      Thank you for the comment about Asperger. Reminds me a lot of the stories of Eric Kandell and Austria in the Nazi regimen.

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      • I’m not offended . . . I’m just not «at odds» with any of them. I think the work those writers did is a big deal, and I’m honored to build my own ideas on their work. And it keeps going . . . You connected me with Jim Harris at Hopkins, who is causing me to reshape my own thinking with yet another set of insights from one of the few working physicians who actually has extensive personal recollection of Kanner and his lab. As solid as I thought my work was as a «next step» he showed me quite a lot I hadn’t known . . .

        But at the same time, much of what I’d found was new to him. I guess that’s how this process goes.

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  2. Actually Silberman did acknowledge that Kanner did cite Asperger’s work in a review in neurotribes but said he only did it once. I’d be interested in a link or documentation where Kanner reference Asperger a second time. I’d be interested in reading more on the matter from either Czech or Robison. Robison stated that he did research and read the actual documents in German and that anyone who knew where they were and read German could access them. I’m still curious why Donvan and Zucker had to approach Czech to get these documents but Robison had easy access to them. I’m also wondering why Silberman claimed he could not access this data if Robison could easily access them and stated that anyone could access them. I’m also curious when and where and how John Robison learned how to read German fluently.

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    • Silberman, in Neurotribes, claimed that Kanner had not acknowledged Asperger during his lifetime. In a latter interview he did claim that Aspger had acknowledged Kanner. It is interesting to see how much he can backtrack. I was aware of one of the instances and wrote about it in my previous blog. Donvan and Zucker related the 2 instances in their book.

      Czech had a publication which was mentioned in my blog but the same did not detail all of the story. Czech is planning on writing an extended article in Molecular Autism. At present it is 70 pages long.

      I have been able to talk to children that survived the holocaust. I also spoke with Eric Kandel, Nobel Prize winner, about the experiences of his family during the Nazi regimen in Austria. For those that committed the atrocities, it was a time of moral ambivalence and they felt justified because everybody else was doing it. For those who lost everything, including their loves ones, there was no ambivalence. It was murder.

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  3. To answer Jonathan Mitchell . . .

    My father was a professor of philosophy whose specialty was Kant, Wittgenstein, and the other Germans. So I grew up with German language philosophy texts round the house. My ability to translate papers like Czechs is marginal but I can do it slowly. I began studying my dad’s German texts when I was in grade school because they were a puzzle.

    As for why I saw it and others did not, I should point out that I only saw it after the Different Key book told me where to look. Because his papers are all in German an American searching for data on Asperger would not normally see them. But a Google search for Herwig Czech Asperger, and similar searches does bring them right up.

    Once I started to translate them, I realized I needed confirmation and I enlisted the help of a better German scholar than me. Their translations basically backed up what is in Different Key, and added somewhat more.

    What Czech describes paints a picture of what I would call moral ambiguity; a man who grabbed the benefits that were available to those who stayed in Vienna hospital once the Jews were gone. He did not instigate what I’d call evil things but went along when they occurred around him. To be fair, he did what a great many non-Jews did in that environment. Czech says the same in the writings I saw. Not a monster but certainly not a saint or savior; a cog in the machine. Czech also points out the only account of Asperger being «seed from the Gestapo» came from Asperger himself.

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  4. I’m sure the major German philosophers had their work translated into English. I knew your Dad was a philosophy professor but did not know what his specialty was. Even if he had the original German texts, you would have had to have learned German from someplace to be able to read them. You’re also giving a different story than the one I’m recalling from what you wrote in the psychology today article when you said that people on the NIMH, including Thomas Insel were the ones who told you where to look and not Donvan and Zucker. In a different key is a pretty new book, but I realize you read an advanced copy before I had a chance to read it. Don’t have the article handy but that’s my memory.

    Also, I’m still wondering why Silberman who had access to German translators for other papers that he researched was not able to access Czech’s paper. He claimed that Czech had this work and would not give him access to it. Yet if it were freely available on Google, then why wouldn’t Silberman have been able to access it and know all its contents with the help of his German translators. Could it be that Silberman in his spin on Kanner versus Asperger’s knew about this and did not want to publish it because it would spoil his story? The plot certainly thickens all around. I will be interested in reading both your paper and Czech’s when they come out and I can get access to them.

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    • You’re confusing two different things there. I learned about Czech from the Different Key book and its authors. I had no idea about Czech or the stuff he’d found about Asperger before they brought it to everyone’s attention. I wasn’t looking or wondering about that. That part is all due to their investigative work. It would never have occurred to me to go looking for German language sources on Asperger though in hindsight it makes perfect sense. And yes, I did learn of that some month before most people via an advance copy of the book, just as I saw an advance copy of the Silberman book before that.

      As for puzzling through German I had a red leather German-English dictionary, my father to tell me what stuff meant, and later on, my school’s German teacher, Mrs. Kathey. Don’t read too much into that. I don’t have any incredible ability to go investigating this in German. The Different Key authors did all that. I only followed a trail they marketed out.

      The other ability I used in this case is the skill set I have from genealogical and history searches, which I got from my father’s mother, and have done for years. I have a lot of practice interpreting German language and Jewish records from Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries.

      As for what Kanner and Asperger said and wrote in the 1930s . . . I was pointed to the early writings of Kanner and Asperger by the folks at NIH, in response to parent queries about what was old and what was new. Through their archives I was able to see and read papers that were at that time not easy for the public to find. For example, a few years ago the Simons Foundation got permission to put Kanner’s original paper online but before that it would be very hard to find. I was able to get an early start with that material.

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  5. Pingback: James Harris Discusses the Books Neurotribes and In a Different Key | Cortical Chauvinism·

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