For a long time, science writer Steve Silberman knew little about autism, save for perceptions gleaned from the 1988 movie “Rain Man.”
Dustin Hoffman won an Academy Award for his role as Raymond, a man with autism who also has astounding mathematical abilities that give him and his brother, played by Tom Cruise, a leg up when they visit the gaming tables in Las Vegas.
Silberman had always assumed it was a rare condition and that his chances of meeting an autistic person in real life were slim.
But the San Francisco-based writer’s views began to change in 2000, when he boarded a cruise ship to Alaska with a bunch of computer programmers attending a shipboard conference.
He asked one of them if he could conduct a follow-up interview after the cruise ended. The man invited Silberman to his home for the interview, but wanted Silberman to know that his autistic daughter also would be there.
Six months later, Silberman was writing a piece for Wired magazine when he met another Silicon Valley family with an autistic child.
Soon after, seated in a San Francisco cafe, he was relating his experience to a friend. A woman seated nearby overheard him and blurted out that she was a teacher in Silicon Valley and was convinced there was an “autism epidemic.”
In 2001, Silberman published an article about autism called “The Geek Syndrome,” which discussed the condition that impedes communication and social interactions.
Post-publication, he began receiving emails from parents of autistic children and from adults with autism. They told him about the challenges of day-to-day living, the difficulty in finding help for autistic children and employment for autistic adults, and the panic parents feel as their autistic children age out of the education system and into an often-cruel world.
Silberman decided to delve deeper into the world of autism. The result is his 2015 best-selling book, “NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity.”
The author will be in Tacoma on March 24 to deliver a public talk on autism at the University of Puget Sound.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 68 American children have been identified with autism spectrum disorder, and says more people than ever before are being diagnosed with the condition.
Silberman says several factors contributed to the uptick in the incidence of autism during the 1990s.
He points to a 1980s broadening of the criteria used by medical and mental health professionals to diagnose the condition.
He said British psychiatrist and researcher Lorna Wing, who died in 2014, helped advance that cause. She was the parent of a disabled child who pioneered the idea that autistic people fall somewhere on a spectrum of behaviors.
Wing introduced the term Asperger’s Syndrome, named for Austrian physician Hans Asperger, which describes a less severe form of autism.
Silberman describes autism as “a broad, heterogeneous condition” causing disabilities that range from “kids who can’t talk at all to very chatty adults.”
Silberman said there are few studies looking at the prevalence of autism in adults, but he points to one conducted in England that found similar rates in adults and children.
That finding led him to explore the idea that autism has always been with us, traveling under different names.
“What if autistic people have always been here, but were hidden behind other labels?” Silberman wondered.
In his book, he looks at the stories of famous scientists, like Henry Cavendish, an 18th century scientist known for his pioneering work with hydrogen and also for his eccentricities. Contemporaries described him as shy, aloof — he communicated with his servants only in writing — and obsessed with details. All are traits that can be found in people on the autism spectrum.
Silberman writes about the work of Leo Kanner, who founded the children’s psychiatric department at Johns Hopkins University and published an influential paper on autism in the 1940s. Kanner described parents of autistic children as lacking in warmth, and suggested that their attitudes might have contributed to their child’s condition. It was a theory that was to have far-reaching effects.
For many years, Kanner’s views of autism prevailed.
By the 1950s and 1960s, Silberman said, autism was looked at as a severe mental illness, and people with it were often warehoused in psychiatric hospitals — like the Dustin Hoffman character in “Rain Man.” Having an autistic child carried a heavy burden of shame and guilt.
“I spoke to older parents,” Silberman said. “They were told to institutionalize their children, to quietly remove their photos from the family album, and to never speak of them again.”
Silberman also tells the story of pediatrician Hans Asperger, working in Vienna in the late 1930s under the shadow of Nazi control.
“There was a secret program against disabled children and adults,” Silberman said. “It was a practice run for the Holocaust, and the kids in Asperger’s clinic became a target.”
Fearing for the safety of some of his young patients, Asperger spoke publicly only about those he felt were more promising.
Thus, Asperger’s name later came to be associated with “high functioning” autistic children — because those were the only children he had talked about publicly, Silberman said. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Lorna Wing resurrected Asperger’s ideas that autism included kids who weren’t as severely affected. And more recently, clinical terminology has evolved to refer to autism spectrum disorder, which encompasses people with Asperger’s traits as well as other forms of autism.
Today, attitudes about autistic people are changing as science looks for answers.
“Autism has gone from the thing that nobody had ever heard of to the thing nobody can shut up about,” Silberman says.
He says it’s become something of a “hipster parlor game” for people to try to “diagnose” famous people from the world of software and computing with autism.
“People don’t have a firm grasp of the difference between autistic traits and an autistic diagnosis,” Silberman says. “The whole thing about autism is that one entry on the menu does not give you a full banquet. It’s a constellation of things occurring together.”
Autistic traits, like the ability to hyperfocus on a single topic or a heightened ability to recognize patterns, are not uncommon in the larger population, Silberman says.
People with those traits are often drawn to fields like science or computing. And autistic people may feel more comfortable communicating through a keyboard than through face-to-face conversation, he adds.
But Silberman says the problem with assuming “everyone is a little autistic” or that all autistic people are geniuses is that it can deny help to those who really need it.
In school, he says, that means autistic kids may need more time to complete a test. Because they can be hypersensitive to sounds, bright lights or touch, they may need a place at school where they can work quietly, without distraction.
In the job market, he says, they should be allowed to show off their skills, rather than being judged on the impression they make in a traditional job interview, where they are expected to charm the interviewer.
“You may never know the potential of an autistic person, unless they are given the chance to live up to it,” Silberman says.
Autism author lecture
Who: Steve Silberman, author of “NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity.”
What: Free talk.
When: 6-7:30 p.m. March 24.
Where: Tahoma Room, Commencement Hall, University of Puget Sound.