Steve Silberman, author of Neurotribes, has won the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction, a prestigious U.K. award. It’s the latest of many prizes, glowing reviews, and appearances high on best-seller lists for this magnificent work on the history and meaning of autism. It directly challenges all the pity and tragedy narratives, without erasing lived experiences of difficulty by autistic people or family members. It’s deeply rooted in the social model of disability, emphasizing the ways in which people become disabled by a society geared only towards the typical. It’s widespread readership and visibility has the potential to shake how people only casually linked to the disability world perceive autism, perhaps shifting the flow of dollars and celebrity support away from “cures” to acceptance and accommodation.
I read the book this summer and had planned to review it, but instead got caught up in the Autism Speaks tangle, and interviewed Silberman for this piece, and by the time my writing log had cleared, the book was well launched. It’s an amazing piece of research and writing, not the least because Silberman negotiates a challenge that I face as well: He’s not autistic.
Neurotribes is a masterful work of allyship. Silberman is thoughtful and intentional in terms of how he represents autistic people, and I know he holds himself accountable to the group he’s trying to represent. Autism Speaks is worried, and while I’ve heard plenty of grumbling that the mega-charity only cares because a famous neurotypical author has weighed in, none of that grumbling has been directed at Silberman (to my knowledge. I’m sure there are exceptions. There are always exceptions).
A book like this can have enormous impact on a paradigm. It has to come at the right moment, when society is ready for its message. It has to build on years and years of work by people inside the movement. This is a problem. It shouldn’t take an elite voice like this to get people to listen, but when you’re competing with Autism Speaks and their 60 million dollar a year budget, it’s hard to get a counter-message through. Neurotribes is, at least in some circles, providing a hefty counter-weight to the tragedy/epidemic narrative of autism.