Monday, January 25, 2016

NeuroTribes--a book review

[Regarding Steve Silberman: NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity.]

Silberman provides the most complete history of autism I have seen, and he makes it fun to read...

If you think autism is a new phenomenon, this book will make you think again. He gives many historical examples of people who were clearly on the autism spectrum, and he explains why most autistics would have been off the radar in the past. In the first chapter he gives us extensive details about the life of Henry Cavendish (1731-1810), a phenomenally productive scientist who discovered hydrogen and measured the mass of the Earth, but a seriously weird guy. He was socially inept and remarkably eccentric; he dressed in old-fashioned clothes and had fixed routines like taking exactly the same walk every day and eating the same food over and over. He was so upset by accidentally encountering a housemaid on the stairs in his house that he had a separate set of stairs built for his servants so it wouldn’t happen again. He was every bit as Sheldonish as Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory...

As awareness of autism began to rise, parents found that with intensive early interventions, many of these children could overcome the worst of their handicaps, improve their language and social abilities, and even be enrolled in public schools. Laws were passed to ensure these children had access to educational and therapeutic services.

But at the same time, pernicious rumors spread about vaccines, and all kinds of quackery abounded. Some doctors (and some non-doctors) promised to cure autism with a regimen of diets, supplements, and other unproven interventions, even chelation and chemical castration. Silberman does a masterful job of cutting through the nonsense...

The best thing Silberman does is to put a positive spin on autism. He sees autistics as different rather than as defective. Autism is many things; autistics are actually more different from each other than from neurotypicals. Autism may just be an exaggeration of traits we all have. There is a wide spectrum, and most of us can identify some autistic-like tendencies in ourselves. Some of the characteristics that define autism are also characteristics that make people successful in a wide range of endeavors. The child who spends hours lining up his toy cars just so may grow up to apply the same degree of fixation, dedication, effort, persistence, and total concentration to solving a problem in his chosen field of work. Some autistics have unique abilities in math, art, or other areas. Temple Grandin gives her autism the credit for her ability to design humane livestock facilities; she thinks in images rather than in words and is able to “think like a cow.” She has said she would not support curing autism because “The world needs all kinds of minds.”

Autistics can be thought of as a neurodiverse tribe. Instead of making them conform to our neurotypical world, we can try to accommodate their differences and create an environment for them that will allow them to thrive and contribute to society. Silberman gives many suggestions as to how that can be accomplished. He gives numerous examples of how parents have adapted to the needs of their autistic children rather than making the children adapt to the rigid expectations of society. Sometimes a behavior initially seen as negative can be encouraged and utilized for positive accomplishments.

We are daily confronted with bad news about terrorist attacks, the idiocies of presidential candidates, and celebrities who have proclaimed themselves experts, and pseudoscientific misinformation in the media about everything from vaccines to evolution. In a world with all of those discouraging trends, this book is a welcome ray of clarity, sanity, and optimism about autism. It won the Samuel Johnson Prize, the UK’s most prestigious award for non-fiction, and one review called it a “brilliant and sparklingly humane book.”


  1. Cavendish was a shy man who was uncomfortable in society and avoided it when he could. He conversed little, always dressed in an old-fashioned suit, and developed no known deep personal attachments outside his family. Cavendish was taciturn and solitary and regarded by many as eccentric. He only communicated with his female servants by notes. By one account, Cavendish had a back staircase added to his house in order to avoid encountering his housekeeper because he was especially shy of women. The contemporary accounts of his personality have led some modern commentators, such as Oliver Sacks, to speculate that he had Asperger syndrome, though he may merely have been anthropophobic.

    His only social outlet was the Royal Society Club, whose members dined together before weekly meetings. Cavendish seldom missed these meetings, and was profoundly respected by his contemporaries. However his shyness made those who "sought his views... speak as if into vacancy. If their remarks were...worthy, they might receive a mumbled reply, but more often than not they would hear a peeved squeak (his voice appears to have been high-pitched) and turn to find an actual vacancy and the sight of Cavendish fleeing to find a more peaceful corner". Cavendish's religious views were also considered eccentric for his time. He was considered to be agnostic. As his biographer, George Wilson, comments, "As to Cavendish's religion, he was nothing at all." He also enjoyed collecting fine furniture exemplified by his purchase of a set of "ten inlaid satinwood chairs with matching cabriole legged sofa".

    Because of his asocial and secretive behaviour, Cavendish often avoided publishing his work, and much of his findings were not even told to his fellow scientists.

  2. He never married and was so reserved that there is little record of his having any social life except occasional meetings with scientific friends.

    Read more:

    Cavendish was sociable only with his scientific friends. Even the only existing portrait of him was sketched secretly.

    English chemist and physicist who was shy and absent-minded. He was terrified of women, and communicated with his female servants by notes.

    A recluse throughout his life, Cavendish disliked the company of men and was terrified of women. His female servants were forbidden to cross his path and he communicated with them by handwritten notes. His sole pleasure in life was science, and he devoted himself to research with an enthusiasm bordering on obsession. He was a regular attendant at the meetings of the Royal Society, of which he became a fellow in 1760, and he dined every Thursday with the club. He also had a library where he would attend on appointed days to lend books to men who were properly vouched for. Otherwise, he had little intercourse with society.

  3. Shy Henry

    Despite his fame as a scientist, Henry Cavendish was painfully uncomfortable in social situations.

    One early biographer described him as "shy and bashful to a degree bordering on disease. He could not bear to have any person introduced to him, or to be pointed out in any way as a remarkable man". In one memorable meeting at the home of Sir Joseph Banks, he was introduced to an Austrian admirer of his work. The visitor told Cavendish that he had specifically come to London to meet him and spoke at length on Cavendish's accomplishments and how he was one of the great scientists of his time. In reply, Cavendish "answered not a word but stood with his eyes cast down, quite abashed and confounded. At last spying an opening in the crowd, he darted through with all the speed of which he was master, nor did he stop until he reached his carriage which drove him directly home". This was typical behaviour for the great scientist whose social awkwardness was legendary.

    Throughout his lifetime, there were numerous anecdotes about Cavendish's solitary nature and his eccentric behaviour. Often described as afraid of strangers (especially of the female variety), he mainly communicated with the female servants in his household through written notes and even had a back staircase built onto his house to avoid having to face his housekeeper. Many of his fellow scientists commented on his thin, shrill voice which often trailed off whenever he was uncomfortable or embarrassed (as he frequently was). According to Sir Humphrey Davy, "his voice was squeaking, his manner nervous, he was afraid of strangers and seemed, when embarrassed, to articulate with difficulty. He wore the costume of our grandfathers; was enormously rich, but made no use of his wealth". Although Cavendish was a distinguished member of the Royal Society, he only attended club dinners and never saw visitors in his own home. Even at those dinners, he was notorious for his shyness and was often seen loitering outside the room where the other guests were gathered, working up the courage to face them. Not surprisingly, he never married and, much like his fellow eccentrics Isaac Newton and Nikola Tesla, may well have died a virgin.

    Henry Cavendish was always seen as eccentric, even as a child...

    He spent most of his life in poverty due to his father's refusal to give him more than a tiny pension for his support, According to one biographer, "During his father's lifetime, he was kept in rather narrow circumstances, being allowed an annuity of [500 pounds U.K] only, while his apartments were a set of stables fitted up for his accommodation. It was during this period that he acquired those habits of economy and those singular oddities of character that he exhibited ever after in so striking a manner". Although he regularly attended the Royal Society dinners, he never had more than five shillings in his pocket to pay for the dinner (his father only gave him that amount to pay for the dinner and nothing more). Despite a late-life inheritance which made Cavendish one of the wealthiest men in England, there was little outward change in his extremely modest lifestyle...(continued)

  4. (continued)He also set up a separate house in Soho which he operated as a lending library for the many books he possessed. His elaborate system of receipts to keep track of the books lent out (even the ones he took for his own use) proved unworkable and he eventually hired a German scholar to act as librarian...

    The very few guests there commented on Cavendish's penny-pinching habits, "if anyone dined with Cavendish, he invariably gave them a leg of mutton, and nothing else". According to another story about Cavendish, when he entertained a group of four scientists and the housekeeper commented that the usual leg of mutton wouldn't be enough. His answer? "Well then, get two"...

    Did Henry Cavendish suffer from Asperger's Syndrome? Oliver Sacks, along with other modern clinicians, have cited Cavendish's social anxiety, routine-bound repetitive behaviour, and obsessional nature (at least as far as science was concerned) as evidence for autistic symptoms. Unfortunately, there is little information regarding his childhood but later descriptions of his solitary nature, emotional remoteness, odd gait, panic attacks, and tendency to engage in compulsive routines seem to bear out the diagnosis. Whatever the reason for his oddly reclusive nature, Henry Cavendish continues to be remembered as arguably the greatest English scientist of all time after Isaac Newton. Whether the pathology he showed in life kept him from achieving even more than he did is a very good question.