Those of us in the neurodiversity movement are overjoyed; Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity has gone mainstream. It has been featured in the The New York Times, NPR, BBC, The Guardian, among others. It has won at least one prestigious award. And personally, I’ve teared up on multiple occasions as I’ve listened to the audiobook on my commute to and from my day job.
And this huge neurodiversity win leaves me thinking, what’s next? Now that this issue is front-and-center, what questions remain?
While Silberman profiles many gifted people in his book, giftedness (arguably an aspect of neurodiversity) is never named as a separate tribe. As a reader who has spent more time reading about giftedness than autism, part of me bristled at the exclusion. After more consideration, I realize that I have more critiques of current gifted scholarship than I do about Silberman’s book, which is diligent and unspeakably relevant.
I ask (not of Silberman; he’s busy these days) for a similar diligent study of what The Columbus Group knew (and when they knew it) of so much overlap between the range of giftedness and spectrum of autism. Their definition of giftedness as asynchronous development paired well with the understanding (at the time) of autism as a developmental delay.
Yet many in the gifted community subtly work to distance themselves from autism, to my ears with a flavor of relief more than clarity. (GHF is the only organization of a certain size I have found that deals with neurodiversity in a way I feel comfortable with; they publish a variety of books and brochures for education and outreach). Check out discussions on social media, and you can hear the audible relief of parents having an explanation other than autism to describe what is happening for their child. So much of the current literature doesn’t help. (I don’t even want to link to the books and articles I refer to, so as to avoid sending more traffic there).
How many self-understandings have been delayed because of stigma of autism? How much better will parents, educators, and therapists be able to serve young kids with Silberman’s revelations in their consciousness?
This is probably going to be unpopular for me to say, but the label of twice-exceptionality (2e, used when one presumes giftedness as the first exceptionality) is part of the problem. People try to create a bridge between two worlds that aren’t really separate by talking about 2e. And does anyone really have only two exceptional traits? I would prefer a more integrated world that honestly looks at how all of these traits are related to one another.
I’ve written about “gifted and 2e” families myself, trying to follow existing norms. Upon further reflection, the common phrasing of 2e as “gifted with a learning disability” doesn’t even account for autism (unless you understand how giftedness is brain wiring and autism is brain wiring).
Autism is a lot of things, but “learning disability” doesn’t quite capture it. The solution is the neurodiversity paradigm.
Before I throw the rubber ducky out with the baby (pardon me, I have an infant son), I am also skeptical that the autism community supports the most precocious in their midst. “Asperger’s” is blasted as elite in some Autistic circles, which I find ironic considering how I came to it in very humble life circumstances four years ago. I want some leaders from the gifted community to talk more with some leaders in the autism community, folks like Lynne Soraya, Nick Walker and the Autism Women’s Network.
With Silberman’s NeuroTribes doing so much to clear up the history of autism, I anticipate that “I’m so glad it’s not autism” conversations will happen much less frequently. Yes, figure out how your mind works (perhaps you have a customized operating system), and what works for you (take your passion and make it happen). And perhaps don’t call a person 2e or 3e or 4e when “neurodivergent” will suffice.
Silberman, while writing about science writers who have intense social impact, extends his impact with a calm building of well-anchored arguments. I would love follow up volumes on other conditions (dyslexia most urgently), for I trust Steve to continue and extend the work of his dear friend Oliver Sacks, who wrote his foreward. At a minimum, I want his same guidance, observations, and historical insights through social movements as we live the next moments of neurodiversity.
I don’t know exactly how to respond to this book, but I am certain I will incorporate its insights into my work in the coming years. I do know that I want everybody in the gifted community to read NeuroTribes, and see themselves as a part of neurodiversity and not an island unto themselves.
Besides, more in your midst are Autistic than you admit.