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Monday, April 30, 2018

Review: Neurotribes

Neurotribes is a book about the history of autism. The author points out that autism has been around probably for as long as humanity has been, and the autistic portion of humanity has probably made outsized contributions to technology and human progress.

The book starts off ominously, following a couple who had an austistic child and then tries to do their best to "cure" him. They visit doctor after doctor, eventually running out of real doctors and then visiting cranks instead, falling into the usual traps of becoming anti-vaccine and it seems like the entire book is going to turn into an anti-science rant, when until finally, one of the "doctors" takes one step too far:
On the Rosas’ next pilgrimage to Los Altos, the doctor inevitably brought up chelation. But this time Craig challenged him. “Wait a second,” he told the doctor. “You’re telling me that the recommended course of action for a low reading of mercury toxicity is chelation?” “Yes,” the doctor replied. “And the recommended course of action for high mercury toxicity is chelation?” The doctor nodded yes again. Finally Craig asked him, “Is there any sort of outcome that would contraindicate chelation?” And the doctor said, “No.” (Kindle Loc 1261)
After this long-winded introduction apropos of nothing, the author finally starts telling us about Henry Cavendish and other famous scientists in history who were probably autistic. The thing is, if you work in technical fields, it's wouldn't be difficult for you to recognize parts of yourself in some of these stories:
His grandfather, William T. Price, made a fortune by shrinking the design of diesel engines so they could fit into trains and trucks. At Cornell, Price was known for giving lectures in short pants and was described by his classmates as a combination of Sherlock Holmes and A. J. Raffles, the gentleman thief created as the anti–Sherlock Holmes by Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law, E. W. Hornung. After graduation, he embarked on a bike tour of Europe, returning just a couple of days before his wedding. Price was confused that his fiancĂ©e was upset; hadn’t he come back in time as he said he would? (Kindle Loc. 4101)
 From here on we have a history of the discovery and categorization of autism as a disorder, first by Hans Asperger, and later by Leo Kanner, who took pains not to give Asperger any credit. This part of the book is very likely to teach you to have very little faith in the "science" of psychology, as all sorts of theories were promulgated with no scientific testing. Children would be seized from their parents and institutionalized, and all sorts of nasty experiments performed on them. Blanket statements would be made about such afflicted children which would later turn out to be completely unwarranted.

Part of the book explains the rise and increase of autism: the diagnostic criteria was deliberately broad, and later broadened even further (once it was broadened accidentally, when the word "and" was replaced by "or" during the editing process). The motivations of the clinicians and psychologists involved were (somewhat) noble: the idea was that the broadened criteria would make it easier for parents to get state help and assistance for their children. (The author doesn't point out that this also makes more money for the clinicians and psychiatrists involved, who would be the ones collecting state money for administering such therapy) Much of the criteria seems so broad that nearly anybody who has a hobby he likes and is knowledgeable would be considered autistic.

But I did enjoy the section of the book where he reverses the situation, and points out how neurotypicals (NT) would be considered if autism was the societal norms:
By autistic standards, the “normal” brain is easily distractible, is obsessively social, and suffers from a deficit of attention to detail and routine. Thus people on the spectrum experience the neurotypical world as relentlessly unpredictable and chaotic, perpetually turned up too loud, and full of people who have little respect for personal space. (Kindle loc 7657)
In this case, anybody who dislikes loud parties (e.g., the typical Silicon Valley holiday party) would be considered autistic. But I never found any attraction to alcohol, loud music, and spaces where you can't even hear yourself think, but the world must be full of them (or at least, the party organizers who run Silicon Valley parties must be full of those people) or parties would actually be interesting to me.

The book is a long read. I got quite a bit out of it, especially the historical portions, and was never bored. Recommended.

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