My heart is heavy today. Suddenly I understand something in a new way and this clarity only makes me sad. I now know where they’ve been. I now believe beyond a doubt that the entire autism spectrum of people has always been here. And Steve Silberman is the one who found them.
But let me back up a little. All of Nat’s autistic (post diagnosis) life I have heard the words “Tsunami” and “huge wave” and “bubble” applied to the “onslaught” of diagnosed autistic people in the United States and elsewhere. “Where did all this come from?” is the question, asked with lots of hand-wringing and consternation. Two in 10,000 was the frequency of autism in Nat’s babyhood (1989). This kept shifting to greater and greater incidence until we got to where we are now, 1 in 68.
The mainstream refrain is “they have always been here, it’s just that the definition of ASD has broadened and covers many more people than it used to.” The anti-vax refrain is “this is an epidemic caused by environmental toxins, especially the prevalence of vaccines.” I don’t believe the latter, but that’s beside the point. To say that this number of people with autism has always been here but the definition had not taken everyone into account — this is not the full explanation. It is not a satisfying answer.
The answer is much subtler and complex than just to explain it as the broadness of the spectrum. While reading Silberman’s book, Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, something inside of me broke into a hundred pieces. I was conscious of a very familiar, very old feeling, one that wound its way around my throat like a python.
This was the way I felt when I read a Holocaust book.
The way Holocaust books go is you pick one up and you think, “Another Holocaust book, don’t I already know how horrible it was?” And then I read it and I learn a new thing, some terrible other thing those monsters did, and the horror grips me all over again. One time it was the piles and piles of shoes left behind after the gas chambers. Another time it was the forced surgeries, without anesthesia. Soap and lampshades from skin. Or when a parent was forced to choose between children, or an adult son who let his father die in the ovens to save himself. Being a Jew, I naturally relate to the stories of the 6 million, though of course I’m aware of and horrified about the other millions of people: Catholics, gays, disabled. The millions in Stalinist Russia too. So much sad and gruesome death last century.
And here we have Steve Silberman, in making his case for the missing autistics of the past, talking about how the Nazis treated autistics, and the other populations. Showing us the scorn the Aryans had for autistic difference, but also showing us that this was nothing new.
I’ve always known about the institutionalization of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, or the euthanasia of some, or those locked in an attic. But I never actually realized how many we were talking about. Silberman has searched the records of psychiatrists, institutions, sifted through tiny details like an archaeologist, and he has unearthed an entire lost people: the autistics of the past.
With a deft and gentle hand Silberman has reconstructed the diaspora of autism. And it is a heartbreaking account of lost souls, misunderstood, reviled, shut down and shut away lives. Silberman has effectively proved that the people we see now, up and down the spectrum, have indeed always been here, but because there was so little understanding of what to do with the “feebleminded,” as they were called, the “useless eaters,” the sick and irrevocably strange and different were sent away to institutions or languished at home or worse. Anyone with even a little autism was thought to be mentally deranged, broken. There was no cultural belief in special education, no awareness of how human minds can be taught just about anything. There had to be an evolution, centuries, millenia-long, before people understood that these beings are every bit as human as the rest of society, and thereby able to learn, grow, adjust, work, and be part of Us.
Silberman says, “In an eerie preview of the autism ‘epidemic’ to come four decades later, the prevalence of childhood schizophrenia started spiking in the midtwentieth century.” Just as we had an onslaught of people with ADHD when we first discovered it — and it became the diagnosis of the 90’s — just as bipolar is right now — childhood schizophrenia was one very popular explanation for people who were actually on the autism spectrum. That accounts for the deeply-involved, most disabled autistics.
And these were the people whose families were educated and well-off enough to even know to bring them to the few psychiatrists in the country at that time. Silberman finds that French physician Edouard Seguin coined the term ‘idiot savant’ as far back as 1869. Seguin wrote,“It is from this class, almost exclusively, that we have musical, mathematical, architectural, and other varieties of the idiot savant; the useless protrusion of a single faculty, accompanied by a woeful general impotence.” The real hero in the book, Hans Asperger, though practicing in the early 20th century, put this in a humane, 21st century light: “Autistic children have the ability to see things and events around them from a new point of view, which often shows surprising maturity. This ability, which remains throughout life, can in favorable cases lead to exceptional achievements which others may never attain. Abstraction ability, for instance, is a prerequisite for scientific endeavor. Indeed, we find numerous autistic individuals among distinguished scientists.” This was almost 100 years ago. This accounts for the Asperger types, the splinter skills.
Think about it. A child who presented as odd, to the point of not being able to talk until he was around five, and then, after that, presented as so strange, so unaware of or unskilled around others — Temple Grandin comes to mind — with no precedent of what speech therapy, sensory integration therapy, etc., could achieve — the common thing was to give up on this child. So even the “higher-functioning” would have been put away. Yes, there were many many institutions back then. More than you realize. And what happened there? They likely became worse, thereby proving the doctors “right.” Crowded into rooms without pants on and hosed off when they defecated. Things like that. Some of these people of course ended up in jail. Some — well, it’s too horrible to contemplate what a cruel, ignorant family might have done.
The Nazis exterminated the disabled first, before they got to the elderly or the Jews. No, we did not send our monsters to the gas chambers, but we did treat them like shit. They were mistakes, burdens, disgusting, useless, scary.
Without education, and without understanding the potential of people with autism, it would have taken a remarkably unique person (like Hans Asperger) to feel anything but fear and shame. About Asperger, Silberman says, “He christened this distinctive cluster of aptitudes, skills, attitudes, and abilities autistic intelligence, making the bold suggestion that autistic people have played an unappreciated role in the evolution of culture:
‘It seems that for success in science and art, a dash of autism is essential. For success, the necessary ingredient may be an ability to turn away from the everyday world, from the simply practical, an ability to re-think a subject with originality so as to create in new untrodden ways.’
But even the parents who would not give up on their children despaired of what to do with them and they would have to send them away because there was no known alternative. I often wonder what would I have been like during the Holocaust: a rebel with a gun, shooting at Nazis and hiding in the woods? A victim, too scared to move? Or someone who was wise enough to see what was coming, and got out in time?
And what would I have done as a parent of Nat one hundred years ago? I pray to God I would have said, “Fuck no,” to the psychiatrists and raised him to be the good man he is.
The autistics have always been here. We just did not see them, and if we did, God help them. Now we see them. They aren’t sent away, hidden, cast out. They are sent to school. They are trying to get work, any work, for at least minimum wage.
The real Tsunami? The real disaster? That we don’t have enough funding for all of these very different but very worthwhile people to live productively after high school. The real puzzle? When are we going to wake up, treasure difference, and learn from it?