Book Unveils Details Behind the Curtain of Autism’s History

Cover-largeHistory is only a product of what its writers deem important. Many times, the way history is unfurled for future generations is distorted in some way, and sometimes it’s because of the fact that some details achieved less public attention than others. Science writer, Steve Silberman has recently assumed the challenge of spotlighting those lesser-known details, thus contributing to- and even rewriting- our knowledge of autism history.

Published on August 25, 2015, Steve Silberman’s book, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, has already made huge waves in the global community for its insights on the details behind the two most famous contributors to the definition and diagnosis of autism: Hans Asperger and Leo Kanner. 

In actuality, the origins of studies of autism began in the early 1900s, against a backdrop of Nazi occupation and World War II pressures.

Dr. Hans Asperger evaluated a variety of children with autism, allowing them to live naturally as he studied them. His ideas were the first to recognize autism as a lifelong condition, one in which symptoms/behaviors vary widely for each person. However, when Austria, Asperger’s home country, was annexed to Germany, a new stigma was attached to autism that prevailed long after Nazi Germany’s downfall. People were given incentives to report disabled people, after eugenic laws were passed.

At the same time, Leo Kanner, an American child psychiatrist, used psychopathology to explain the behaviors of autistic children. Kanner interpreted autism as a condition that only existed in young children, and was caused by neglect or cold treatment from parents. Rather than fostering an appreciation for those with autism, Kanner’s work encouraged people to find a way to “cure” or to “develop” ways in which to make an autistic child “normal”– which unfortunately led to many children with autism becoming institutionalized.

Contemporary assumptions concerning the causes and treatments of autism are strongly influenced by the fact that Kanner published his findings a year before Asperger.

Through his publicizing of the story behind autism treatment and diagnosis, Silberman hopes to foster a new public attitude towards autism, one whose primary aim is not to make it “go away”, but to build a more “cognitively accessible world” that accepts people with autism. He expresses that the world can and should include people with autism in society by accommodating and understanding their individual needs to thrive.  

By Samantha Mallari

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