This is a bit of a slog to read, because it spends a lot of time lingering on details that you may or may not feel are relevant. It goes into the lives of the people who ‘discovered’ autism and described it clinically, much more than it goes into the lives of actual autistic people, and there’s one chapter I found rather troubling which follows the family of an autistic child. It focuses on their anguish and confusion, and their increasingly desperate attempts to “treat” their son with whatever unpleasant, pseudo-scientific methods they could find. By the end, I was desperate to hear that someone had actually ever asked the child what effect it had on him. (As far as I can tell, nobody did.) Those particular parents weren’t extreme, but nonetheless, I got very tired of their desperation to have a “normal” child.
It also does some retrospective diagnosing of a couple of scientists and thinkers from days before there was such a diagnosis. I’m always a bit iffy on that: there do seem to be good grounds to make those judgements, but… most of the people I know now don’t know much about what goes on in my head and why I react the way I do. I don’t want them diagnosing me once I’m dead. Still, at least it does provide autistic models and heroes for people now.
I’m also a little leery of the ubiquity of being on the spectrum in Silberman’s view. Lots of fandom, lots of engineers, maybe even most in the picture he’s painting — it’s a stereotype of fandom and of STEM that I haven’t necessarily found to be true. And fandom hasn’t been so very welcoming of actual neurodiverse people, either. If it’s ever been the perfect home for them, it isn’t now.
All in all, though, I did find the book interesting, and the perspective on neurodiversity as something to be accommodated and used productively is one that’s definitely timely. Despite my criticisms, I found it an interesting book — and it definitely treats autism as a spectrum, touching all kinds of people. This definitely isn’t the attitudes of Autism Speaks: instead, Silberman urges understanding, accommodation and respect.