#NFBookClub Discussion Part 1

November 10, 2016 Uncategorized 6


Hi everyone! Welcome to the Nonfiction November edition of our nonfiction book club! I hope you’re all enjoying Neurotribes as much as I am and are just as excited to discuss this thought-provoking book. I know it’s a long one, so I’ll keep the link-up at the bottom of the post all month, so you can join the discussion at your own pace. First, I’ll just give you the discussion questions and then you can keep reading for my answers, that way it’s easy to wait to read my answers until after you’ve written your own if you like. So, here is our first set of discussion questions!

1. Had you heard of Henry Cavendish before? What do you think the author’s purpose was for beginning with the story of two famous physicists who were autistic? Was your reaction when his eccentricities were first described different because he was a nobleman living in the 1700s, instead of a contemporary?

2. What do you think of the doctors promising autism cures?

3. Do you think the author is unbiased? Do you feel like their are any particular points he’s trying to make? If so, is he doing a good job making them

4. How do you like the book so far?

My answers and the link-up are below.

1. Had you heard of Henry Cavendish before? What do you think the author’s purpose was for beginning with the story of two famous physicists who were autistic? Was your reaction when his eccentricities were first described different because he was a nobleman living in the 1700s, instead of a contemporary?

Henry Cavendish’s name definitely sounded familiar, but I don’t think I could have come up with a reason he was famous. I’m not sure I ever knew the magnitude of his accomplishments or that he was thought to be autistic.

I thought the author’s choice to begin with Henry and Dirac was clever for several reasons. He shows that people we would (probably) diagnose with autism today have been around for a long time. He also shows that while someone with autism may require small accommodations to be comfortable, they can do incredible things, perhaps because of the qualities they have that are considered markers for autism. He definitely follows his own advice of treating each individual with autism as being unique, giving us full biographies of each of these men.

I do think reading about Cavendish as a historical figure made me view him differently. Had the author not suggested an autism diagnosis, I’d have thought of him as simply an eccentric. Interestingly, I’m currently listening to Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything and in the brief section where he describes Cavendish’s behavior, it is clearly suggested that he’s simply eccentric. This made me wonder how much people with autism have essentially been written out of history. I felt that for someone with autism, recognizing that you’re not alone and that people with autism have done great things in the past could be incredibly important.

2. What do you think of the doctors promising autism cures?

They made me incredibly angry. Particularly the two doctors featured seemed to have a real scam going, with a focus on making money by convincing the parents to buy more products. I’ll talk about this more later, but I also think the author has convincingly made the point that people with autism are “different, not less.” In that case, trying to cure them instead of accommodate starts to look pretty intolerant to me.

3. Do you think the author is unbiased? Do you feel like their are any particular points he’s trying to make? If so, is he doing a good job making them?

I don’t think the author is quite what I’d call unbiased, but I think he’s doing a good job of just presenting factual information anyway. That is, I’m fairly convinced he’s giving us all the information and only truthful information. However, I do think there are some particular points and I think he has been rather clever about structuring the book to support those points. Here are the major points I’ve taken away so far (many of which echo the points I think the author made with Cavendish’s story):

  • There have been people with autism for at least as long as recorded history.
  • People with autism are “different, not less.” (this is in quotes because it’s verbatim something Temple Grandin said, by the way)
  • People should be more willing to make accommodations for those who think differently.
  • If people with autism are able to create or find an environment in which they are comfortable, they can become some of our greatest thinkers.
  • Each individual with autism is unique and autism is a spectrum that includes many different behaviors. Both children and adults can have autism.
  • Expanding the definition of autism is important because it allows people access to services that they need.

I think the author does an incredible job telling a story that supports these assertions. I was particualrly struck by the contrast between the kind Asperger trying to help children he saw as being on a spectrum vs the fame-seeking Kannan trying to change them and professionally invested in autism being one very specific thing. Obviously the contrast between those advocating eugenics and forced sterilization with Asperger’s approach was even more extreme. Although the author never offered any value judgements, I thought his points were clear.

Last but not least, I thought he did a great job of mentioning many individuals with autism who had a great accomplishments. Like women, I do feel as though people with autism have been written out of history. It’s about time someone put them back.

4. How do you like the book so far?

As you can probably tell, I think it’s wonderful. It’s long, so I appreciate that it’s broken into many smaller sections. I find the writing very engaging. Most importantly, I think the author’s approach to telling the individual story of each person with autism naturally makes for great narrative nonfiction. People stories are typically what make me enjoy narrative nonfiction. However, I love that I’m learning new things too! I would also say I’m convinced of all the points I think the author is trying to make.

I’d like to leave you with two quotes I found particularly persuasive and moving.

An observer at Apserger’s school said that “Fundamentally, there appears to be no special interest in the difference between normal and abnormal as it is felt that theoretically this is unclear and practically is of no great importance.” And a man named Goodman, diagnosed with autism at age seventy, said that joining a support group for adults with autism was “like coming ashore after a life of bobbing up and down in a sea that seemed to stretch to infinity in all directions”.

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6 Responses to “#NFBookClub Discussion Part 1”

  1. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review

    I am SO GLAD to be reading this book. I work with several individuals with autism — diagnosed as such 50 or more years ago — and it is extremely enlightening. The author has done a wonderful job of unraveling a very complex and often confused history and weaving it into a narrative that makes sense. All of the people, the autistic individuals and the scientists and parents, are fascinating.

    Bias? Well, it’s fairly easy to tell what the author’s opinion is, but he shows it by presenting evidence that is hard to ignore. I have to trust that he’s not doing this in an underhanded way. It is very moving and sobering to read of the hard struggle autistic people have had, just to get a diagnosis that will give them access to education and services.

    You do an excellent job of listing the main points. Those are the important ones to me too.

    • DoingDewey

      Thanks Lory! I’m really glad you’ve found this a helpful read. I agree with your assessment of the author’s bias. Although it seems that he has very strong opinions, he does such a good job building a logical argument to support his opinions, that I feel convinced to accept them as factual.

  2. Shay

    This book has been very interesting, if a bit slow going because I am listening to the audio and it is 20+ hours long!

    I’m generally a little averse to the idea of trying to diagnose people in retrospect, because there is no way to confirm, or let them speak for themselves. However, given the idea that autism is a new condition, there is a lot of value in identifying potential historical cases to help dispel that myth. Henry Cavendish was an interesting illustrative example, as I have only every previously seen him presented as eccentric.

    Silberman obviously has a particular perspective, but I think he is presenting the information in a pretty even-handed way. When he was describing some of the treatments that Leo received, such as vitamin mega-dosing, and the pressure his parents faced to subject him to chelation, I was actually getting kind of angry because at first he wasn’t mentioning any of the evidence that shows these therapies are not effective. When he does get around to presenting the evidence, it is organized and explained very well.

    Silberman also does a good job of showing how little information and support the parents often have, which makes it easier to understand how they could be desperate enough to try these unproven treatments on their children.

    So far this has been a really interesting and informative book. Looking forward to part two!

    • DoingDewey

      You make a good point about diagnosing people retrospectively being problematic! I like the idea of doing so because I want everyone to be able to see themselves in history, but I recognize that accuracy could definitely be a problem.

      I agree that he did a good job presenting the information in an evenhanded way and of explaining where the parents were coming from. I ended up furious at the people who would take advantage of the parents’ hope with preten science, but not at all angry at the parents.

      I’m impressed you’re making it through the audiobook! I think this is probably our longest nonfiction book club pick so far. I really enjoyed it too though and I’m glad we picked it up 🙂

  3. Rachel

    1. I agree with Shay about diagnosing people with autism retrospectively. It’s nice for autistic people to say “here’s a famous guy that was autistic, look how well he did for himself!” but how much does the diagnosis really mean? The name of Cavendish sounded familiar, but I didn’t really know much about him.

    2. I don’t think there such a thing as an “autism cure” and people who try to claim they have one are pseudo- or full-time quacks. On the other hand, I do think that there are ways to “train” autistic people to act more like neurotypical people. I also sort of hope there will be a way to prevent autism in the first place.

    3. To be honest, I’ve found the book to be rather wandering in content. A lot more could have been said if the digressions had been cut down. I’m not entirely sure what his point is right now.

    4. It definitely has it’s interesting parts, though I am not as excited about it as I was when I first started. Again, I think it wanders too much.

    • DoingDewey

      You both make a good point! Diagnosing historical figures does seem a bit dicey. I guess I think that if we could prevent autism, we’d also understand it well enough that we’d be able to ‘cure’ it. However, reading this has made me wonder if treating autism as something that needs to be cured is OK. It’s definitely a different way of thinking and because it’s not the norm, it’s a way of thinking that may make getting by in our world more difficult. I’m not sure that has to be the case though, if reasonable accommodations were made for people with autism and being autistic seems like it can come with some cognitive abilities most of us lack. It’s tempting to speculate that by preventing autism, at least if we did so at a genetic level, we might be selecting against genius too. I’ll be excited to see where the research leads and to hear more from people with autism representing themselves, such as Temple Grandin.

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