Book reviews


Steve Silberman

A black and white illustration of a young woman seated on a ledge, facing away from the viewer. She is slightly slumped, as if feeling lost or sad, and has a backpack next to her.
image: licensed

“‘The thing about being autistic”, a young woman once told me, “is that you spend your life looking for something you’re good at, and then everyone tells you to shut up about it.”‘

[excerpt:Neurotribes“, Steve Silberman.]

Of all the books on autism that I’ve read over the years, I don’t think I have read a single one by a journalist. They’ve all been written by psychiatrists, psychologists, but just as equally important in the same literary landscape, parents or partners who have told their own stories, not just about their loved one’s experience, but about their own experience.

Steve Silberman, the now-best-selling American author of 2016’s “Neurotribes”, may be listed in print and online mostly as a journalist, but you don’t have to look far to find that his first days at uni were spent exploring Psychology in Ohio. You know that someone close to him – if not Silberman himself – wrote his Wikipedia entry, because the first word he uses to describe himself is the humble “writer”. Not “prizewinner”, or even “investigative journalist”, as he most certainly is, by any definition.

And the act of investigation for the purpose of journalistic enquiry isn’t always controversial; it can be what sets apart a writer for their humanistic approach. In “Neurotribes”, both the potential for controversy and the pleasingly humane co-exist harmoniously among the same pages. Arguably, truly humanistic work is only ever controversial to those who lack humanity. Something that distinguishes Silberman, to me, is his compassionate writing. I am myself a writer who has first and foremost spent time with the community at their kitchen table or community centre with an instant coffee, or in gumboots walking across a boggy old farm, listening while someone explains their life to me.

And… it takes one to know one.

Where a psychiatrist writing about the same person might discuss the diagnostic criteria and “fascinating” features of a “disorder”, Silberman is discussing a human being, whose diagnosis, no matter how dominantly it may proliferate in their life, is only a part of who they are. I’ve read so many awful writings wherein a person with an autism diagnosis is juxtaposed against the “healthy” or “normal”. Enough.

I like Silberman. I can hear the “kitchen table” in his writing; the same writing I’ve tried to model for others in my own magazine columns, speeches, blogs or even uni assignments. I decided to leave a prominent local magazine the day an editor asked me to write about anyone who has been “rehabilitated” from their autism via a local disability support organisation. She asked me to find a resident who had moved through the program and been released out into the world, and I wasn’t sure if we had suddenly begun talking about kangaroos which had been hit by trucks on the highway and I’d missed the memo. Ah… the daily life of a writer who is surrounded by “journalists” who don’t read. It’s endlessly soul-sucking stuff. And it sucked my soul bone dry.

It’s just nice to look up and be reminded that not all journalists see the autistic community as an automatically sad feature article, or a perpetual “problem” for the social affairs reporter gig that nobody wants. Maybe it’s because, as a gay married man in the United States, Steve Silberman belongs to a marginalised community himself; maybe it’s because he has thoughtfully, humbly absorbed what’s really going on out there, over a long time. Maybe it’s just a bit of everything, and the knowledge that we have two ears and one mouth for good reason.

He has also kept very well up to date with the global conversations we’re having about what neurodiversity really means in the context of sociological thinking, economy, community, and real-world implications of our ongoing societal failure to provide for these individuals and their families. The implicit message is an urgent one; “Stop calling us ‘beautiful’ or ‘gifted’ or ‘special’, and start making room in your community for us.” Even savants have to eat.

You will also notice that in “Neurotribes”, the author will often quote someone else, using their very words, rather than creating a synopsis of the story… almost challenging us to examine our own reactions to the older terms used… even if at the time he is outlining a separate point altogether. This is important when acknowledging the often uncomfortable history of the early theorists of psychology, who used terms like “idiot savant”, and the power of language in the area of autism is one that is changing rapidly; it is a path that many authors dare not tread, for fear of being quoted similarly.

“It seems that for success in science and art, a dash of autism is essential. For success, the necessary ingredient may be an ability to turn away from the everyday world, from the simply practical, an ability to re-think a subject with originality so as to create in new untrodden ways.”

These words, again from Hans Asperger, demonstrate again the concurrent nature of both our ongoing complex relationship with language in reference to autistic individuals and also the prudent observation of behaviour, to this day viewed as a researchable abnormality. The “dash of autism” has me squirming on Asperger’s behalf as it rings terribly close to, “everyone’s a little bit autistic!” Yet, as with my comments on Professor Baron-Cohen’s decades of work in the field, we know now what we know now, and the things these men knew of autism and the powerful social influence of language back then was just as it is revealed in old writings… less enlightened. I am left wondering, just in passing, what might have been the 2022 state of things, given more women in early psychological science, and a more diverse (and neurodiverse) psychological science cohort each year across global autism research cohorts. I also note the date of publication, and wonder what the author might say about it all in the context of the global pandemic. I suppose I shall have to spend a little time adding new things to my podcast library and searching for Silberman’s more recent writings in everyday media.

I’m usually pretty wary of sleeves boasting little gold or red circles and big bold “New York Times bestseller” on the front. Yes, the book has won the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction, and the successful publication of a NYT bestseller is a huge, huge deal. Anyone can be forgiven to taking that people’s-prize recognition to the fucking bank. I would too. That said, I don’t really care how any of the bloody things you’ve sold; I don’t even care what other people think of the thing. I want to read what you chose to say, given the precious, precious American hours outside of cantankerous editors’ shrill emails to sit in your living room and write a book that mightn’t ever pay. What did you boil down and refine into something you hoped I’d spend my professional development dollars on, and why did it take 519 pages to say it? This book’s a brick of a thing.

The comprehensive reference list at the end of the book – titled, simply, “Notes”, might give the reader a clue. In this day and age, you’ve got to have the receipts. And this isn’t even the full bibliography. For that, you go to his website. For some reason, I felt compelled to flip to the end of the book before I read the beginning, and I took to heart everything I read in the afterword, which could be construed as a little trumpet-blowing exercise, if not for the author’s seemingly genuine bewilderment that the community not only liked the book, but centred new discussion and social support options for themselves upon its formidable back. In searching for that section, I found the “Notes” section; a list of sources that Silberman consulted in the researching of this book. From chats with people to YouTube videos to academic papers to some good old-fashioned books, it reads like a lotta, lotta miles, a whole lotta coffee, and a pretty sore butt. Nice work, man.

Most of all, it’s Silberman’s rigorous reconstruction and review of autism research (including a human rights and legislative perspective) coupled with an overall appreciation for a modern-day systemic context which sets “Neurotribes” apart from comparable literature. Like the writings and research of Baron-Cohen et al, Silberman describes the systemized thought and behaviour we have all come to recognise as features of autism, but unlike his contemporaries, he doesn’t stop there, in what I call a fixed state of “peering into the petrie dish” writing. These are human beings, with families, with names, with stories, and with needs we all must try harder to meet. In the United States, this is a formidable challenge. Silberman doesn’t shy away from addressing this inequality. He also stops short of kowtowing to the pioneering researchers, and prudently illustrates a point about inclusivity being not just a benevolent act, but essential to innovation and to a socially self-aware global community, as seen below:

“This boy also had a fertile imagination and was daydreaming about rocket ships and other ‘fantastic inventions’ long before they became a reality. This inspired Asperger to comment, ‘Here one observes how remote from reality autistic interests often are.‘ But the advent of space exploration in the 1950s required him to retract that statement in favour of a suggestion that the designers of spaceships themselves were autistic.”

I recommend “Neurotribes” and it can be purchased from Booktopia for a pretty good price this week. I’m really enjoying this read, and I’m pleasantly surprised that it takes a systemic perspective and doesn’t just talk about the “sexy” autism types. We are taking a headlong dive into the full meta-experience for many people, and over a few generations. Take a look and tell me what you reckon.

Review by Rosalind Chia-Davis.

Want me to review a book? You can mail it to me and I’ll do just that. Just click my contact page for further details. Sorry – only books related to my general study area (psychology and autism) will be reviewed.

The Pattern Seekers: A New Theory of Human Invention

Simon Baron-Cohen

In reviewing any book about psychology and families and life in general, it’s so important to think about who the book’s written for. In the case of “The Pattern Seekers”, it’s a case of a quite evenhanded address to both the layperson or the student, albeit a first-year student. This is a book which labours hard to explain in detail a single theory, and while some of us turn pages while sighing, “Okay! I get it! I understood your concept twenty pages ago!”, not all of us are accustomed to reading literature like this. I acknowledge that.

Christine Kenneally in her 2020 review of this book reached a comparable conclusion to mine, but she focused more on actually pinning Baron-Cohen hard to the specific claim of the book; that if-and-then thinking has been the evolutionary driver of human invention over a hundred thousand years. Is the consistent presence of hyper-systemised thinking – prevalent among the autistic community – what has driven human invention alone?

Simon Baron-Cohen – one of the most prolific names that arises in any perusal of a history of twentieth-century autism research – is no stranger to the subtle art of science communications in the area of autism. He is a Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, and Director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University. He was there from very early on, urging the community to broaden their understanding, and then to adjust their attitudes. That he has come under harsh criticism on TikTok more recently by the community is irrelevant to this review of “The Pattern Seekers”, in my humble opinion. It is worth saying here, however, that the conversation is changing, and Baron-Cohen’s contribution to that conversation might have served its greatest purpose; to awaken and rally and educate a worldwide community who didn’t know words like “neurodiversity”. In the same blurb of the book that I derived the keywords of Baron-Cohen’s theory from, he says that he “challenges us to think differently about those who think differently”. That purpose remains a good and noble purpose.

I also note that Professor Baron-Cohen continues to participate in the public conversation about the reality of daily life for the autistic community; the disparity between the success of autism awareness and the non-success of governments to financially, fiscally recognise the economic difficulties for individuals on the spectrum and the families who love them. We now understand that a child with learning differences has her own timeline for when she fulfils the “normal range” criteria other children reach in second grade. We now understand that at least one parent is likely to have a disproportionately heavy caring load, and that they cannot work in a job in the same way that parents with neurotypical children can. We acknowledge that without their tireless work, the taxpayer would be paying a professional to do the same carer work. We understand that where one partner in a marriage is autistic, the other partner is likely to be heavily committed to a carer role, and only working part-time, if that. Where is the reflection in the economy of the community’s acceptance of these now-settled facts?

It’s easy for me in 2022 to describe Baron-Cohen’s 1980s theory and experimental design as simplistic. However, in reality, I can’t know what it was like to look around as pioneering researcher in a deeply misogynistic and ignorant world, and even come at designing research which opened the door to the conversations we’re having today. Yesterday, it was “theory of mind”. Today, we’re working actively towards ensuring that autistic researchers are the ones asking the questions, pulling apart the answers and drawing conclusions alongside the autistic community. Neurodivergent students with lived experience now see a door where there previously was only a chalkboard. I like to believe that the co-ordinators of postgraduate programs already recognise the importance of opening that door to the community they’re researching. Ironically, it could be the autistic community’s superior aptitude for systemized thought which draws far more out of those research questions than ever before.

Despite my status as an ambitious student, I am wary of academics. I read as many books by parents, partners, siblings, social workers and gardeners as I do books by those academic human ravens in their strange robes and silly hats, scratching away at their faculty desks in a mess of abandoned coffee mugs and forgotten post-its. They seem at once both elitist and impoverished.

In any case, today’s book, first published in 2020, is not written by the same academic as the man who brought us the “extreme male brain”.

Like so many authors of this style, Dr Baron-Cohen begins with case studies.

“One time, a child in the playground had asked if he could see Jonah’s wallet, and when Jonah agreed and handed it over, the other boy ran off with it. His mother despaired at how she would ever teach him all the different ways someone might trick him. He just didn’t seem to understand other children. He said that social interactions were incomprehensible to him, unlike the world of objects or patterns, for which he had an intuitive understanding. So Jonah preferred to be solitary, learning not from others but by and for himself.”

Passages like this, for so many of us with experience in the field, have a very familiar ring. For over a decade now, I’ve worked my way through many such books, studying the ways that authors of all backgrounds and education levels use anecdote and story to outline the ways in which autistic individuals express themselves, find enjoyment, or might find that difference stands between them and any success they seek, be it social, romantic, professional, familial or otherwise. For the parent reading on, having searched the bookshop for anything that might enlighten her on her own child’s way of being, it’s a lightbulb moment.

The subtitle, “A New Theory of Human Invention”, might sound like a publisher’s idea, and maybe it was, but the main thrust of it is that Professor Baron-Cohen is trying to explain to us that his theory of the “systemizing mechanism” is not just a way of thinking which benefits the individual (think engineers, scientists, mathematicians, musicians, craftspeople, businesspeople), but is turned up to maximum in autistic people, and over generations, beneficial to society. The implicit message is that we’re probably pretty daft to keep designing education, training, workplaces and social systems in ways which exclude thinkers whose strength is hyper-systemized thought, even if they wear the same clothes every day, eat their lunch alone and don’t particularly like team bonding days. In this, I cannot agree loudly enough.

In a keen effort to link the Systemizing Mechanism (interestingly) to evidence in evolutionary psychology, Baron-Cohen posits that humans evolved to using systemized thought between 70,000 to 100,000 years ago. He also raises the question of how successfully humans might have developed the Systemizing Mechanism without language concurrently evolving.

Once having navigated the many, many ways in which Professor Baron-Cohen explains “if, and and then” to the reader, we begin to understand that the good Professor has placed a great deal of weight in the evolutionary argument for his theory. It may have been merely a matter of his editor saying, “Yes, there are many possible variables in how the Systemized Mechanism may have come about, but for goshsakes, you’re selling this book to mums and dads; not fellow psychologists. Can you please pick one strong supporting argument, and leave it at that?”

If I had a cup of tea with Professor Baron-Cohen, I might ask for more of his thinking on the neuropsychology of the argument, even if we have known for generations how the neurotypical mind learns about cause and effect. Anyone with a dearly loved family member on the spectrum knows that for that individual, the motivation and cognition behind their learning journey is completely different, as is their developmental timeline. Language development, importantly, also has its known differences, even causing alarm for new parents when words like “language delay” begin to appear. Nekminnit, their three year old is reciting in perfect enunciation and cadence the script for their favourite tv show.

In short, I appreciate what Professor Baron-Cohen has tried to do here; explain a theory to the community in simple, understandable terms, arouse curiosity about the science of psychology and autism research, and mount upon that theory a general call to action: value what you have in people who think in systems and patterns (even if they think of very little else all day), stop putting roadblocks in front of the autistic people in your schools and workplaces, and give them the support they need to bring forward their very best. Not just for their own wellbeing and self-actualisation, but for all of humanity.

Review by Rosalind Chia-Davis

(Who is Quite Terribly Undergrad)