Monthly Archives: February 2016

NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman: a review



NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman

I can’t praise this book highly enough. Anyone interested in autism, in the history of psychology or psychiatry, and even in the history of medicine should read it.

I have written a long review because I am anxious to ‘sell’ the book.

The author is a science journalist who became aware of what appeared to him to be a rise in the number of autism diagnoses. He was fascinated and decided to research the subject. The result was this book, which charts the history of the recognition and diagnosis of the condition, the problems along the way, and the outlook for the future. He gives in-depth information about the research but matches that with plenty of interesting reading about both the researchers and the children and adults who formed the basis for their work.

I felt at the end – well, actually by about half way through – that I had a much clearer picture of what had happened over the years to produce the current situation in autism research and in the way autistic people and their families are treated by various authorities and for that matter by the general public. As the grandparent of an autistic child I have been very aware that information is patchy, that many people who should know what they are doing and saying don’t, often through no fault of their own, and that the stellar research at the highest levels is not always trickling down to local authorities, schools, doctors, and so on.

Silberman starts with Asperger, whose work with ‘different’ children in Vienna just before and then during the second world war was to some extent informed by his passionate desire to save these children from Nazi attempts to discriminate against anyone who did not conform. He certainly saved a number of children from euthanasia although in the end many of those he saved died in a bombing raid on the institution where they were living. The syndrome he recognised became known as Aspergers and was for many years thought to be different from autism. It was characterised by high intelligence and Asperger’s own assertion that these people were essential to human development went some way towards differentiating them in the minds of the public from individuals with more average skills. Asperger himself managed to escape from Nazi Austria where he would almost certainly have been executed. His work, however, did not escape with him. He was ignored for a long time even though some of his researchers also reached America.

The next part of the book is focussed on Kanner, another refugee from Europe who was an excellent salesman, marketing his own expertise in a climate that had people puzzling over a condition that was thought to be rare and that had attracted very little research, possibly because of the wide variety of ways in which it presented. Kanner managed to sell the idea that the problems faced by those he studied were due to bad or cold parenting, and he initially diagnosed the condition as early-onset schizophrenia. He thus suggested to a public that was beginning to be aware of the condition that families were in some way to blame, and that ‘sufferers’ were in need of mental health treatment, usually institutionalisation. This had a profound effect on the attitudes of teachers, doctors, psychiatrists etc. across the western world, and because of the lack of prior research there was no-one qualified to contradict Kanner. Even Asperger, who was ignored by Kanner, was unable to make any headway because most of his subjects had been ‘high functioning’.

Kanner’s followers, even though some of them deviated from Kanner’s path, continued to regard the condition as something in need of treatment – a disability, or illness, or lack. Some of the treatments Silberman describes are horrific, others well-meaning but inevitably ineffective. All are fascinating as a progress chart through autism research. The author goes into a lot of detail about the lives of some of the people involved and in some instances their autistic children or ‘patients’.

Once it was realised that autism had nothing to do with schizophrenia, things should have improved. To some extent, they did, but by now there was the abyss, in the public mind, between the high functioning Asperger’s individual who might be strange but was an asset to society, and the autistic person who might have communication problems and was in need of special education etc.

Today, the consensus is that there is an autistic spectrum, and individuals can be diagnosed as ASD (autistic spectrum disorder) and be almost anywhere on the spectrum, from the erratic genius to the near-vegetable. Just like ‘neurotypicals’ (the rest of us), autistic people are as different from each other as is possible to imagine. In other words, like all of us, they are each unique.

The work of pioneers like Lorna Wing in UK has done much to alter perceptions at the upper levels of research. Simon Baron-Cohen at Cambridge is currently doing excellent work. Lorna and her work are described in detail by Silberman but Cohen only gets a mention – I think the book went for editing and proofreading well before Cohen’s more recent work became widely known.

Wing was unwilling to accept American ‘knowledge’ about autism for her daughter, and was determined to conduct her own researches.

Another strand of research relied on autistic people themselves. Now that diagnosed individuals were growing older and recognised that they were part of a group, and not just individually ‘strange’ they came together in conferences, study groups and networks of people who were able to add enormously to our understanding of autism. People like Temple Grandin, whose mother resembled Lorna Wing in her determination not to accept any kind of institutionalisation for her child, have been able to articulate for us the way some autistic adults perceive the world.

Then there was the film industry. Silberman explores in depth the making of films like Rain Man and its effect on public consciousness. It was the precursor of works like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (now turned into a stage play) and the brilliant portrayal of a high functioning autistic ‘heroine’ in the Swedish/Danish series The Bridge. Rain Man did perpetuate the idea of the autistic savant – a fairly rare presentation of the condition – but did much to alter attitudes to autism among the general population.

Silberman ends on a positive note (with plenty of recommended further reading) because he shows just how far we have come, how Kanner’s theories held back research and how they have been shown to be a dead end. He praises modern researchers and leaves the reader with hope for the future.

However, he also points to the desperately slow speed at which any modern findings trickle down to the ‘coal face’ where teachers, general practice doctors and nurses, and for that matter parents and their neighbours work. There is a long way to go.

It is quite clear from the book that autism is a condition which makes individuals function quite differently from their neurotypical peers, but has no need of treatment in any psychiatric or medical sense. Of course a child who cannot communicate will benefit from careful work regarding communication, and a child who fears noise or light can be gradually desensitised. But these are on a par with the needs of neurotypical children and are not specific to autism. What is specific is a different way of perceiving the world and the people in it. Until teachers, in particular, understand that and allow for it, autistic children and their families will continue to face problems.

The more books like Silberman’s are read and then recommended to any students going into any work involving children, the more likely we are to have a future in which those problems become rarer.

Please try to get this book from your local library. I would suggest buying it but really, I’d like to see it on library shelves in the hope that the word will spread!!

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Posted by on February 18, 2016 in reviews



An apology to my autistic students…

This is a fantastic post about autism that should be read by all teachers everywhere.

Source: An apology to my autistic students…

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Posted by on February 13, 2016 in other writers



More musings about writing.


More questions and answers.

Genre: do you prefer certain genres of fic when you’re writing? What kind do you tend to write most?

I write mostly fantasy. (This works for fanfic, too. I have written a few ‘real world’ fics in one or two fandoms but even in cop buddy fandoms I’ve managed to drag in werewolves or dragons or switch everybody back into the middle ages.)

My original work is all, at the moment, in the fantasy genre. I have some plot bunnies that aren’t – for example a novel based around my mother’s wartime experiences – but whether they’ll ever get written is another matter. Oh, except that I also write poetry, and non fiction in the form of travelogues, but I don’t think I’ll widen the scope of this meme to include those.

Have you ever attempted an “adaptation” fic of a favorite book or movie but set in a different fandom or setting?

I suppose this would apply to an original fic that followed the plotline of source material that was well known in much the same way that West Side Story follows Romeo and Juliet or the current BBC Sherlock reboots Conan Doyle’s hero.

I might use a general style or ‘world’ such as accepting the usual ‘facts’ about Arthurian legend, but not the plot. Even when I wrote The Lord of Shalott I veered very sharply from Tennyson’s poem. However, I tweaked the story of Snow White for Silkskin and the Forest People and deliberately tried to keep to the traditional plot points and ending, at least partly to highlight the differences in my story. I did once write a semi-spoof cop buddy fanfic based on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings – a group of us were deliberately writing in the style of a book and the others had to guess which.

These are novellas. For novels, I don’t lack for plots of my own (although I accept the theory that there are only nine or ten in the world altogether) – I only lack time – so I don’t go looking for other ideas. However, I know lots of writers do and I enjoy reading the results.

Do you prefer canon or fanon when you write? Has writing fanfic for a fandom changed the way you see some or even all of the original source material?

The question is almost meaningless for original writing because there is no canon and no fanon. Although I suppose there is the issue of whether to stick to the main traditions when writing in, for example, Arthurian legend, or about dragons.

When I write fanfic I use canon where appropriate. Certainly for things like the essential character traits of the main characters, their looks, and their ‘relationship’ in terms of things like boss/employee or partners, etc. I enjoy exploring the characters and seeing how I think they might react in another story, or with different characters I bring in.

Of course, when writing an alternative universe it is only possible to take canon so far. I really enjoy putting canon characters in a totally different situation and seeing how they would behave. I’ve done this since I was a small child and played with the characters from my books and stories in my head. I remember a sort of strip cartoon but in book form, about a mouse called Mary Mouse. You have no idea where Mary Mouse got to or what she did in my mind!

And no, I don’t think writing fanfic has ever changed my perception of the source material. Nor has writing within the broad category of legends. Why should it? Canon is canon – open to interpretation and commentary but not open to being changed. I will have various interpretations from the start – all of them inspiring different kinds of story but none of them changing my basic view of the original.

The only caveat I have here is that when I wrote The Lord of Shalott I inevitably spent a great deal of time with Tennyson’s poem. I realised that I had always taken a general atmosphere from it, some kind of dreamy but sad romance with lush details. As I studied it more closely it began to irritate me in many ways. Not the story or the characters, just the construction of the poem and some of the language the poet used. So, litcrit of the source material but I still enjoyed the original story! I meanderd through various mediaeval versions too.
Ratings: how high are you comfortable with going? Have you ever written higher? If you’re comfortable with NC-17, have you ever been shocked by finding that the story you’re writing is gen rated instead? How explicit are your original works? If some of them are explicit, are you ever shocked to find yourself writing something general, with no sex or violence?

I don’t set out to write violence or erotica. These arise within the story, depending on where the characters take me and how much they want me to disclose in the course of the plot. I am personally perfectly happy to read explicit descriptions provided they are well written, and am happy to write them myself if I think the story demands them.

I currently have four books self published. Three of them are in the adult only section on both Smashwords and Amazon. They are fairly ‘tame’ by a lot of standards but are still explicit enough to be restricted on the shelves. I think that’s correct – parents and teachers can judge what their children are ready to read when they are quite young. Once they are old enough to realise that they don’t have to tell the truth when asked their age online and have the means to make their own purchases, then I have no problem with them accessing restricted material. I would only add that being Brit I tend to think of 16 as the cut-off age for independence whereas American sites go for 18 which I see as odd. In UK (and in some states) people can marry at 16 – and yet they can’t read about explicit sex?? And if they can marry at 16 there must be some kind of exploration of the issues, at least in theory, in the playground or in lessons, well before that. (I would not like pre-pubertal readers to access ‘adult’ material because they might well misunderstand and be upset by it.)

My novel, on the other hand, is mainstream or general.

The same applies to my fanfiction. Some of it contains explicit sex and some has no sex or violence at all.

I do think that the blurbs or summaries for books and stories should let the reader know roughly what they’re about to read (or reject) but beyond that I think it’s a case of ‘reader beware’.

So yes, I write sex. I tend not to write kinks much, but that’s partly for fear of getting them wrong. And so far as the sex is concerned I tend to focus on the emotions rather than the mechanics but I won’t usually fade to black or leave anyone at the bedroom door.

As a rule, the overall story is my main interest and I don’t try to insert sex scenes artificially. On the other hand, in some work I find them the natural order of things. One beta/first reader wanted me to remove some sex from a book that is not yet finished to make it more YA in nature, which she assumed it was intended to be. It wasn’t and I didn’t and won’t.

Anyway, to recap, I have two adult novellas and an adult book of short stories out there. I’m proud of them. I also have a mainstream novel which whilst it doesn’t ignore sexual relationships has no explicit sex scenes. This wasn’t a conscious decision on my part, it was just the way the story developed. And since it has, I’m quite pleased that the book – and in the end the series – will be accessible easily to older teenagers.

I have also written books for children and although they aren’t yet published they’re in the pipeline; obviously sex and violence don’t feature. There’s a sense in which the very existence of children assumes their parents had sex, but this is not mentioned.

So I will move from totally general/suitable for young children to totally explicit/restricted to an adult audience and then back again without even thinking about it.

Warnings: What do you feel it most important to warn for, and what’s the strangest thing you’ve warned for?

Mostly, I just let my fanfiction readers know that they might encounter almost anything so if they’re easily triggered they should stay away. I do try to let people know what kind of work they’re approaching. I think it’s more important to say whether something is a drabble or an epic, and whether it’s finished, whether it’s part of a series, than any actual content.

Original fic is a bit different. Books don’t usually come with warnings, other than the ones with explicit sex being relegated to the ‘adult’ section and ones with a lot of cartoon kittens being shelved in the children’s area. But I do think it’s only fair to warn readers that this is e.g. fantasy, sci fi, crime, comedy, tragedy, etc. Beyond that, they can read the blurb, see if they know anything else you’ve written, skim the first few pages (or even the end) and take responsibility for reading.

And as with fanfic, they can always turn away if they’re not happy with the contents.

Summaries: Do you like them or hate them? How do you come up with them, if you use them?

I think that for both fanfic and original fic summaries are a way of telling the reader roughly what to expect. As a reader, I really dislike starting to read something and finding it is a different genre or style of work from what I had been looking for. This doesn’t mean I don’t want to read it, just that perhaps I don’t want to read it on that particular day or at that particular moment. I would not read a hilarious spoof on the way to a funeral. I won’t read horror stories just before going to bed. I prefer not to read something that requires intense concentration when I’m likely to have to put the story down any minute (e.g. in the dentist’s waiting room). So I think authors should be fair to readers and I try to be. I know some people don’t like warnings or summaries at all and they are welcome to disregard them but I think they need to remember that probably 90% of readers prefer them.

I hate writing them. Distilling the essence of a story into a paragraph is hard even though Amazon tells us it’s the best way to market. I can summarise the outline of the plot but that won’t give you the atmosphere. I can suggest the atmosphere and leave the plot hazy. I mustn’t give away spoilers if I want the reader to suffer or be curious with the characters.

I agonise over summaries and usually end up asking my beta/editor to come up with something. The very worst are drabbles though I only write those for fun on my personal journal. How can you summarise a drabble in fewer words than the drabble itself?


What kind of genres do you like? What do you think about explicit works? What do you expect from a summary? I’d really like to hear your views.

And if anyone knows how to force WordPress to accept edits on line or paragraph breaks, please please please let me know.

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Posted by on February 9, 2016 in writing