By Jill Escher
When Steve Silberman’s grandiose fabrication of the history of autism, NeuroTribes, was published in 2015 I was stunned that anyone would take the book seriously. As explained in my 2016 review, the book was clearly an ideology-fueled work packed with “abundant and serious flaws,” including its baseless denial of any increase in autism and its characterization of autism as a mere form of neurodiversity, a “strange gift” caused by nothing more than age-old genetic variants.
Many academics have also underscored the book’s web of misrepresentations, most recently a paper in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders by historians Marga Vicedo and Juan Ilerbaig of the University of Toronto. But first some background is warranted.
In NeuroTribes, Silberman tried to sell his preposterous fable not by deploying any data or reasonable discussion of the science but instead via a sort of plot device — by conjuring a dramatic struggle between the “autism” of Leo Kanner and that of Hans Asperger. He essentially accused Kanner, one of the leading child psychiatrists of his day and well known for writing the 1943 paper first describing the condition, of malevolently sidelining countless millions of people with autism by hewing to a narrow definition of the disorder. The latent “tribe” of people with autism (who somehow escaped notice not only of Kanner but basically every clinician and chronicler through the millenia) only began to receive due recognition decades later through the English translation of work by Dr. Asperger, who we are told heroically saved many of his “tribe” from the terrible fate of extermination at the hands of the Nazis.
Great story. Too bad it’s fake.
Over the years the book has received blow after blow of discrediting by scholars and autism experts. Work by Herwig Czech, a historian of medicine at the Medical University of Vienna, showed Asperger was no hero, but instead complicit in the murder of mentally disabled children, a willing cog in the wheel of the Nazi quest for “racial hygiene.” Similarly, historian Edith Sheffer, author of “Asperger’s Lost Children,” put Asperger’s work into the correct historical context, explaining his role in creating categories to serve regime interests, including “autistic psychopathy” (which has little to do with autism as we know it today, rather, it was more akin to a personality disorder, or more accurately, a failure of the child to conform to the fascistic social spirit, as explained in my review here). Both Sheffer and Czech make it clear Asperger’s participation in the murderous regime was in the service of Nazi goals, and an active choice on his part.
Autism experts James Harris, MD, former director of Child Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, and Joseph Piven, MD, of University of North Carolina, addressed “recent media accounts and books” without mentioning Silberman by name, to correct his misrepresentation of Kanner as a proponent of parent-blaming, noting that Kanner had long fought against psychoanalytic theories that blame mothers. Dr. Harris called NeuroTribes a “biased portayal” driven by a “neurodiversity agenda” and has explained in detail how Kanner was a deeply compassionate clinician, and not the calculating egomaniac described in the book. Neuroscientist Manuel Casanova, MD agreed, saying the book “maligned Kanner’s role in the history of autism while praising that of Hans Asperger,” a “biased appraisal of history … made for the sole purpose of upholding some erroneous views stemming from the Neurodiversity movement.” Casanova also stresses that NeuroTribes “trivializes the plight of those more severely affected and who can’t benefit from just having better accommodations.”
Now the Canadian scholars highlight more of the book’s flaws. According to Silberman, Kanner was also a plagiarist of Asperger’s ideas, via an intermediary named Georg Frankl, a child psychiatrist who had fled Austria for the United States in 1938. However, Vicedo and Ilerbaig show that Kanner did not misappropriate Georg Frankl’s ideas or his research, as presented in NeuroTribes. The researchers note that Kanner presented his views on autism as early as 1941 and that his “proposal that autistic disturbances of the affects constituted a hitherto unidentified condition that was inborn and different from childhood schizophrenia was new.” They demonstrate that Kanner developed his views based on observations of Donald T., the first patient described in his paper, and several other children with autistic features, his knowledge of the existing literature on childhood conditions, and his interactions with many scholars. They showed Frankl was not a ‘middle man’ who passed Asperger’s ideas or specific views from Vienna to Baltimore and that Kanner adopted.
They also correct other misrepresentations by Silberman, including his assertion that Kanner concealed his connection with Frankl, that Frankl owed Kanner his life (Kanner did not help Frankl flee Austria or save him “from the gas chambers,” as Silberman wrote), his suggestion that Kanner was tainted by a lust for fame, and factual errors about Kanner’s work history,
The average person might ask, why does all this matter? Because to spin his fantasy of autism as neurodiversity, Silberman had to tear down Kanner. Kanner was the first to identify autism as its own category of psychiatric pathology. Kanner said autism was a very rare condition in the 1940s (and in succeeding decades). Kanner characterized autism as a serious medical condition, not a glorious diversity. So Kanner had to be slimed for Silberman’s obsession with “autism’s always been here in these vast numbers but evil clinicians like Kanner ignored it” crazy narrative. To do that, Silberman employed his vivid imagination, and not actual facts.
I said it in 2016 and I’ll say it again here:
“In closing, NeuroTribes is a phase—some complacency-manifesto-wreckage on the road toward progress in the understanding of this explosion of abnormal neurodevelopment we call autism. While I believe that like many trendy autism mishaps before it, NeuroTribes, too, shall pass, I also fear it may do lasting damage to our society’s collective quest for the truth about this extremely serious explosion of brain-based disability.”
Jill Escher is the President of the National Council on Severe Autism, an autism research philanthropist, a housing provider to adults with autism, and the mother of two children with nonverbal forms of autism.
Casanova M. Neurotribe or Diatribe? Cortical Chauvinism website. November 16, 2015.
Casanova M. On Silberman, Austria and on Re-writing the History of Autism. Cortical Chauvinism website. March 4, 2016.
Czech, H. Hans Asperger, National Socialism, and ‘race hygiene’ in Nazi-era Vienna. Molecular Autism, 2018.
Escher J. NeuroTribes: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back for Autism. Germline Exposures website. March 28, 2016.
Escher J. The Horrifying History of Hans Asperger. Autism Society San Francisco Bay Area website. July 9, 2018.
Harris, JC. Review of Neurotribes, by Steve Silberman, and In A Different Key, by John Donvan and Caren Zucker. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2016. 55;729–735 (paywalled).
Harris JC and Piven J. Correcting the record: Leo Kanner and the broad autism phenotype. Spectrum News website. April 26, 2016.
Sheffer, E. Asperger’s children: The origins of autism in Nazi Vienna. New York: W.W. Norton. 2018.
Silberman, S. Neurotribes: The legacy of autism and the future of neurodiversity. New York: Avery. 2015.
Vicedo M and Ilerbaig J. Autism in Baltimore, 1938–1943. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 2020.