NOTE: Steve Silberman himself has offered his response in the comments.
I have nothing personally against Steve Silberman.
Steve Silberman’s book NeuroTribes is a solid piece of writing that argues many of the same ideas I’ve put forward on this blog. It’s a book that expresses optimism about our futures. It’s a book that respects us. Silberman did an immense amount of research and it shows.
Furthermore he’s worked hard on outreach to the community. He interacts constantly with us. He’s constantly pushing the cause of neurodiversity. As much as an outsider to our community can do, he’s attempted to do. I respect that.
So it’s not as easy to do a piece in which I have to call out Silberman. He’s not Autism Speaks or a cure advocate. He’s at least on the right side. But I can’t hold my tongue any more on this.
Steve Silberman has become a very serious problem for autistic people. He’s become the de facto voice for the autistic community when he is not a member of it. He has become the person the media cites as the expert on the subject, crowding our own voices out of the conversation. And I can’t lie: I feel he’s at fault in this as much as the media.
Silberman can’t be faulted for trying to sell his book, to be clear. Yes, of course he’s got every right to do so. His book is on autism. I expect him to talk about it nonstop. I talk about my own book a lot after all. I realize that he is trying to make his living.
But early on, the idea that he was a voice for us solidified in the media. I’ve read a number of stories that promote his book as if it’s the definitive tome on our lives. It gets frustrating to see articles treating him as the expert on our lives. It’s something I’ve seen constantly since the book came out and I truly think it’s getting worse.
The issue I see is that Silberman hasn’t really stopped to dispel this idea. He’s gladly spoken up in the expert role. He’s really started to become that voice and it’s becoming increasingly unsettling to me as an autistic writer. While he might be able to name drop a number of autistic voices, there’s no denying he’s still speaking for them.
This is how it always is for us after all. The media doesn’t listen to us. They might if we have an exploitable story like being the brother of a famous writer (John Elder Robison) but otherwise it’s assumed we can’t speak for ourselves. This in spite of the fact that the autistic blogging community is a rather epic one filled with great writers. I’m one of thousands here.
It is profoundly problematic that our representative is someone outside our world. That’s reinforcing the idea we don’t know enough about our lives. That’s simply not true. We know full well who we are. We know our lives. Just because eye contact is hard doesn’t mean we can’t tell you concisely how we live.
Being an ally means knowing that your own voice matters less than those you support. I support causes like gay rights and trans rights. But not in a million years do I claim to speak for them. I know enough when to silence my own voice and let the true experts speak.
Silberman tries to be an ally. He certainly does advocate reading works by us. He shares our thoughts. He heavily cites us on his feed and links to us. But I’m still feeling unnerved by him. It’s frustrating to see someone who occupies this central role who isn’t us.
What am I looking for from him? I’m not really sure. I guess just to know that he doesn’t see himself as a more important voice than us. To see him step back a bit. Less activism would even be fine with me. It’s nice he supports us, but it’s not like I don’t feel a bit unnerved by how loudly he speaks.
I also stress to the media: please find us. We’re out here and we’re yelling. Going to someone who studied us over us isn’t the way to go.
As I said at the start, this isn’t easy to discuss. But it must be said.