'A rallying call to respect difference'

Steve Silberman's Neurotribes, a history of perceptions of autism, has won the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction. Jon Sutton reports.

The Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction has been won for the first time by a science writer, with Steve Silberman picking up the award for Neurotribes: a book on autism and its history.

Neurotribes was selected from the longlist by the judges who called it a 'tour de force of archival, journalistic and scientific research, both scholarly and widely accessible'. Chair of judges Anne Applebaum said: 'We admired Silberman’s work because it is powered by a strongly argued set of beliefs: That we should stop drawing sharp lines between what we assume to be “normal” and “abnormal,” and that we should remember how much the differently-wired human brain has, can and will contribute to our world. He has injected a hopeful note into a conversation that's normally dominated by despair.'

Silberman said that the book began as an article for Wired in 2001. He agreed that 'there’s a tremendous amount of human suffering in the book, but it also offers the possibility of redemption. It’s an important story that had never been told. That’s had a terrible effect on global public health. Since parents don’t know why the number of autism diagnoses went up so startlingly in the 1990s, they are afraid of any number of things.'

Last October, we published a special issue on autism. Several of the contributors to that issue have expressed their admiration for Silberman's book. 

Writing for the Spectator, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen said: ‘His book could serve as a manifesto about extending dignity and human rights for people with autism, just as society has now done with other neurotribes such as the deaf, left-handed or gay. It is for society to respond to his challenge.' 

In Science, Professor Francesca Happé said: ‘Neurotribes blows many common beliefs about autism out of the water. Along the way, it tells the real stories of children and adults with autism, their families, and the clinicians and researchers trying to understand their very different minds. Neurotribes is part history, part investigative reporting, part biography, and all poetry. … NeuroTribes can be seen, in part, as a tribute to the contributions that eccentric and socially awkward outsiders have made to technology, culture, and 21st-century society. It is a beautifully written and thoughtfully crafted book, a historical tour of autism, richly populated with fascinating and engaging characters, and a rallying call to respect difference.’

Professor Uta Frith told us the book is 'a must read for all psychologists. Steve’s writing is absolutely gripping, and I am not surprised that the judges of the Samuel Johnson Book Prize fell under its spell and selected him the winner in a very strong field. She told us there is a conundrum: 'If diagnostic criteria for autism had to be broadened, why were they so narrow in the first place? Silberman takes us on an epic journey through autism’s fractured history to find the answer. The most astonishing discovery he made is probably the existence of a previously hidden link between Hans Asperger and Leo Kanner. But, above all, Steve’s humane understanding exhorts us all to embrace diversity.'

- Read an extract from Neurotribes, and find out much more about autism myths and reality in our October 2014 special issue.


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