Q&A: A rock star in the autism community

Name: Steve Silberman

Age: 58

City: San Francisco

Position: Science writer

Steve Silberman

J.: Your job history includes serving as a teaching assistant for Allen Ginsberg, waiting tables at Greens and the Hayes Street Grill, advising Oliver Sacks on the finer points of coming out, working as a restaurant critic, helping develop an internet-based news service and writing for a gay paper, Wired, the New Yorker, Time, Nature, Salon and the San Francisco Chronicle. And you co-authored a book on the Grateful Dead. Is that about it?

Steve Silberman: Yes, but now I have a new identity. In England, teenage autistic fan girls recognize me on the street, and when they take selfies with me, they cry.
That’s because you are the author of  “Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity,” which won the 2015 Samuel Johnson prize for nonfiction, a California Book Award and a Books for a Better Life award. The book also was chosen as one of the best books of 2015 by the New York Times, the Economist, the Financial Times and many other publications. Did you see this coming?

Yeah. When my article “The Geek Syndrome” — about what appeared to be an epidemic of autism in Silicon Valley — came out in Wired magazine in 2001, a number of literary agents asked for a book, but I didn’t have more to say then. This was back when vaccines dominated the social conversations about autism.

In that article, you approached the topic from a scientific angle. What was the response?

I was flooded with letters from parents of autistic kids and autistic people themselves, saying there was a huge set of problems regarding access to basic human services, health care, housing and employment, and none of these problems were being addressed.
Did the social justice angle compel you to spend five years writing the 544-page book?

As a science writer, the idea of a book appealed, plus I had this intense feeling of sadness and frustration that what the media thought was important — vaccines — was not what people with autism thought was important. For me, it came down to why no one had ever explained the reasons behind the undeniably dramatic spike in diagnoses of autism in the mid ’90s. I decided that the standard version of history on the topic must be wrong, and it was — very wrong.

Your readers can learn about the early work on autism by Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger, but J. readers will be interested — and horrified — to learn what happened to autistic children in Asperger’s Vienna clinic.

The Nazis interrupted Asperger’s work in 1938, and the children became part of a secret extermination program, one that led the Nazis to figure out how to carry out the Holocaust.
Were you brought up Jewish?

I grew up in New Jersey, and my parents were communists. They weren’t so much religious as rebelling against their parents’ suburban observances, which amounted to “do what you want, but show up in shul.” I’m not very observant, but I am committed to the traditional Jewish attempt to heal the world.
What kind of kid were you?

I was a little science geek with cloud atlases and a mineral collection, and I loved science fiction. Later, I listened over and over to Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence,” and I was a teenage poet. I have to say I was initially impressed by the power of language by the reading aloud of the haggadah. To this day, one thing I pay attention to in my writing is rhythm.
Since “Neurotribes” was published, you have given the keynote speech at the United Nations for World Autism Awareness Day and have lectured widely on the history of autism. Your TED talk on the topic has been viewed more than a million times and translated into 25 languages. What’s next for you?

I need to write another book! But first, I have a message for parents of autistic children: Don’t lose faith and don’t buy the dire predictions from trusted medical authorities. Believe in your kids, because they are capable of extraordinary things.

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Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.