As “Neurotribes” wins the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize for 2015, author Steve Silberman discusses the vital role that autism has played in shaping human history
When Daniel Tammet was three years old, he fell down the stairs of the terraced family home he shared with his parents in Dagenham. It is his earliest memory, not just for the pain of the bumps and bruises, but because as he tumbled he could see golden sparks falling all around him. In later years, he started to experience occasional seizures; and whenever somebody shouted he would see the colour blue.
“At school I just always thought in a different way,” he says. “The other children didn’t understand me but luckily I had good teachers and a library I could go to.”
To date, Tammet (who was diagnosed with high-functioning autism in 2004, at the age of 25) has written four books (including his memoirs, neuroscience, and a collection of essays on maths) and sold more than a million copies. His writing is translated into 23 languages, 10 of which he himself can speak. Yet what most of us perceive to be simple social skills like displaying empathy and talking to strangers, Tammet admits, have been far more difficult to learn.
Photo: Jerome Tabet
There is no one in the world like Daniel Tammet. He once, after all, publicly recited Pi from memory to 22,514 decimal places without error over five hours and nine minutes – setting a European record in the process. But some now believe that one in 100 of us now experience some form of his condition. And a new book argues it is time society started viewing those with autism differently. Not as a disability, but as something which is natural and necessary for societies to thrive.
Neurotribes, by the US author and journalist Steve Silberman, has taken five years to write. It started as an investigation into the prevalence of autism within the tech bubble of Silicon Valley, but has evolved into a sprawling and fascinating dissection of the role autism has played in shaping human history. While acknowledging the very real challenges of the condition, Silberman, 57, argues strongly against the notion of autism as some “modern plague”. Instead, he questions who are we to decide which type of minds should be considered as normal?
As Silberman writes, “The kids formerly ridiculed as nerds and brainiacs have grown up to become the architects of our future.”
Autism as a condition was only formally identified in the Forties by two medical practitioners working independently on different sides of the world. In 1943, the US child psychiatrist Leo Kanner noticed that a group of eleven of his young patients could amuse themselves for hours with small rituals like spinning pot lids on the floor, but were panicked by any change of routine. Kanner, as Silberman points out, named the condition autism—from the Greek word for self, autos – because they seemed happiest in isolation.
At around the same time, the Viennese paediatrician Hans Asperger was making similar observations among the children in his care. Asperger emphasised the potential benefits to society from their unique intelligence, calling them his “Little Professors”.
Yet for decades afterwards, autism was perceived as extremely rare, with the recommended course of treatment to be institutionalised and cut off from society. It was only in the Eighties, largely through the work of the English psychiatrist Lorna Wing, who was mother to a profoundly autistic daughter, that greater awareness unfolded.
As a result, the number of cases snowballed. In Britain alone there has been a ten-fold increase over the past three decades of those diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum (which includes Asperger’s syndrome, a type of high-functioning autism). Even if the number has tailed off slightly in recent years, various scare stories continue to blame the rise on everything from MMR vaccines to exposure to Wifi signals to not being shown enough love as a child. For Silberman it is far simpler. “Autism has been part of the human condition since millennia,” he says. “It’s just that we haven’t recognised it.”
Nowhere in the modern world is the prevalence of the condition more apparent that in Silicon Valley. Facebook’s former head of engineering has stated that the website’s founder Mark Zuckerberg has “a touch of the Asperger’s.” Time Magazine once suggested that the famously socially awkward Bill Gates may be autistic. Silberman says that after he wrote an article about autism in Silicon Valley he received a call from a supervisor at Microsoft who told him: “All of my top debuggers have Asperger’s syndrome. They can hold hundreds of lines of code in their head as a visual image. They look for the flaws in the pattern, and that’s where the bugs are.”
Despite his celebration of those with what is called “high-functioning” autism, as forever immortalised by Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man, Silberman is keen to stress that for many the condition remains a real disability. Carol Povey, director of the National Autistic Society’s Centre for Autism, sounds a similar note of caution. “We do need to still recognise that many autistic people and their families do experience real challenges,” she says.
A lack of acceptance is high up on this list. Research conducted by the National Autistic Society suggests one in three children with autism say the worst thing about school is being picked on for being different. Adults, Povey says, receive similar discrimination in the workplace.
“Sadly, there is still bullying that goes on. Some people may be good in their jobs sometimes they are so task orientated that colleagues may struggle with them. In a way they are too good.”
Anna Kennedy, 55, whose two sons Patrick, 25, and Angelo, 22, are both autistic, has experienced these challenges at first hand. After the boys were turned away from mainstream education she re-mortgaged her house to set up Hillingdon Manor School for children on the autistic spectrum which opened in 1999 and is now the largest of its kind in Europe. One young man went on to study engineering at a top university and another has since been recruited by Goldman and Sachs.
“It can be difficult living with autism,” she says. “Angelo only sleeps for three hours a night. It is like being in a country where everybody else speaks a different language. But those who do have a diagnosis can thrive.’
Silberman’s book, she describes, as a “breath of fresh air” and she conducts similar campaigns for the unique skills associated with the condition to be recognised. Five years ago she launched “Autism’s Got Talent” which has now turned into a national roadshow.
One performer is 14-year-old Ryan Wiggins, from Watford, who has since become a young patron of the scheme. Wiggins, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s aged 10 and moved between several schools after being bullied, has taught himself to play the guitar and also writes his own songs.
“Sometimes I’m quite socially awkward,” he says. “I do like to keep to myself. I can keep entertained usually just by sitting and making up little stories in my head. I do believe in the theory that there are a lot of positive effects (of Asperger’s). It definitely helps with my creative side. It helps me with my metaphors and in drama it really helps my memory in learning lines as well. I guess I am proud of it really.”
The US journalism professor and music critic Tim Page put it similarly in a letter to the New York Times back in 2012. “I have no doubt that Asperger’s syndrome explains a great deal about my triumphs,” he wrote, “as well as my tragedies”.
By Joe Shute