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Rethinking autism

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Neurotribes: the legacy of autism and how to think smarter about people who think differently. Steve Silberman. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2015 (544 pages, $35). ISBN 9781760113629.

Silberman is a popular award-winning investigative journalist with writings in the New Yorker, Time, Nature, Wired and Salon. He is an engaging author who tends to tackle the big picture issues with a focus on the social construction of illness models. In Neurotribes, with a foreword by Oliver Sacks, he presents a social history of autism with a call for rethinking the condition and tolerance for what he calls “neurodiversity”. This is a plea for conditions such as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to be rethought as naturally occurring cognitive variations with distinct strengths, as opposed to seeing them as diseases or deficits. Silberman argues that autistic conditions have long contributed to history and to the development of culture, making the point that in contemporary high-tech societies, the strengths of focused individuals with the brain capacities to understand and develop computer technologies are actually an asset. He observes that this has been a misunderstood condition with an array of different…