A scene from the film 'Rain Man'

Interview - Steve Silberman author 'Neurotribes'

Whether we see autism as a developmental disorder or as a naturally occurring cognitive difference akin to genius, 'Neurotribes' author Steve Silberman describes it as the 'geek syndrome', largely because of its increasing prevalence in the world of engineering.

Steve Silberman doesn't mince his words when it comes to describing the relationship between autism and the world of engineering. 'If you've ever wondered why some of the techno-whizz kids in the computer department seem a bit odd, then it's because they are. Technology provides a pretty good work environment for some people who are on the autism spectrum.'

Early on in his new book 'Neurotribes', Silberman notes that he once received a call from a manager 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.'

The prototype for the book was an article that Silberman had published in Wired magazine in December 2001. Characteristically pulling no punches, he called his piece 'The Geek Syndrome', in which he drew attention to his research findings that showed a high preponderance of people living with autism working in high-tech communities. The response to the article was overwhelming. At the time the globe was still reeling from the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, yet somehow the article managed to knock international events out of the headlines, if only briefly.

Silverman describes how he received emails from people with genius children who could memorise facts and figures about civil and military aircraft dating back to the First World War. There were letters from people who remembered their computer science lecturers playing simultaneous games of chess, who could calculate their grocery shopping to the penny before getting to the checkout till. There were missives from readers who recalled that at the age of five they wanted to build nuclear reactors and submarines, while finding other humans 'annoying and illogical'.

If the origin of 'Neurotribes' was the article in Wired, then the genesis for that piece was in May 2000 when Silberman found himself on a ship sailing through Alaska's Inside Passage with more than 100 computer programmers on board. The young journalist was reporting on the first 'Geek Cruise', which had been set up by a technology entrepreneur in a bid to replace lifeless convention centres with oceangoing trips to exotic places.

While on board, Silberman met Larry Wall, creator of the first open-source programming language Perl, and managed to talk him into doing a follow-up interview at his home in Silicon Valley. Wall was happy to oblige, but prepared Silberman for the fact that when he visited he would meet his profoundly autistic daughter. By his own admission, at that point the only thing the author knew about autism was what he had learned from watching the movie 'Rain Man', in which Dustin Hoffman plays a savant capable of memorising telephone books.

As Silberman set about researching his article one question kept repeating itself in his mind: why, after 70 years of research on autism, was so little known about it? Fifteen years later, he is widely regarded as one of the most important advocates for people with the condition. But 'Neurotribes' is more than an author simply filling in the gaps in the history of autism. Silberman sets out to investigate the potential links between technical genius and autism. His work wasn't exactly helped by the fact that earlier researchers often fell into the trap of retro-diagnosing influential thinkers such as Einstein, Wittgenstein and even the composer Bartok as exemplars of autism, when the evidence was flimsy at best.

On the other hand, he says that one promising development in understanding autism since the publication of his influential article has been the emergence of the concept of neurodiversity. This is essentially an umbrella term covering conditions such as autism, dyslexia and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and one which encourages regarding these conditions in a positive light, as naturally occurring cognitive variations that have contributed to the evolution of technology culture (as opposed to seeing them as dysfunctions.) Although it is tempting to think of concepts such as the spectrum model for autism and neurodiversity as products of the postmodern world, 'they are very old ideas, proposed by Hans Asperger in his first public lecture on autism in 1938.'

Back in the world of engineering, Silberman enjoys describing a stereotype of the engineer who doesn't tend to think in poetic imagery, preferring quantifiable, measurable ways of looking at the world. He stresses that he does not wish to trivialise autism, while referring to a familiar archetype: the brainiacs, nutty professors, call them what you will, who are characterised by being highly eccentric and socially awkward. 'Remember though, that these are the guys who are driving society forward. What is so interesting about this is that the eccentric engineer was noticed by everyday people long before researchers such as Simon Baron-Cohen got involved.'

Warming to the theme of the eccentric engineer, Silberman paraphrases the autistic animal-behaviour specialist Temple Grandin, who describes Nasa as the world's biggest sheltered workshop. 'She's joking of course, but what she means is that so many people who are working in this sort of leading-edge technology environment would be considered today to be on the autism spectrum.'

For all his straight talking and refreshing lack of political correctness, Silberman is keen to emphasise that just because some of our finest engineering minds are living with autism, it doesn't necessarily follow that people living with autism are destined for a career in engineering. Similarly, while it is often tempting to be amused by the stereotype of the highly focused, super-intelligent technology guru with no social skills, the condition of autism is not inherently funny.

'One reason why I called the book 'Neurotribes' – which, oddly, is a word I do not use in the book – is that conditions such as autism, dyslexia, ADHD were discovered through the medical lens. But there is another way of looking at these conditions. There are tribes of people within humanity that have always been here, that think in distinct and individual ways, that convey abilities and disabilities.'

'Neurotribes' by Steve Silberman is published by Allen & Unwin, £16.99

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