The Silberman Issue

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.


28 thoughts on “The Silberman Issue

  1. I agree with many opf the points you make. As someone who is both autistic and branch secretary of the National Autistic Society West Norfolk branch I too would prefer more autistic voices to be given exposure.

  2. Again, very well-said. I have thought about Silberman as a kind of “translator” for us, reaching out to the rest of the world that doesn’t understand us or has trouble approaching us. But when I think about it — why? Are we so daunting, so terrible, so inscrutible that we *need* a translator? We don’t, actually. And while his writing is good and his research is truly worthy of all great praise, there are many, many ActuallyAutistic writers online who do as well as he — and have things to say about our situation which are *from* our standpoint. It’s kind of like living north of the Mason Dixon line and traveling south (as I will in the coming holidays) to visit family with heavy southern accents. You don’t need a translator. You just need to listen more closely, and remember that not everyone talks like you. I hate to alienate the few allies we have, but seriously, it speaks to the ridiculousness of our situation, that this should even be a consideration, in the first place. Thanks for bring this up and putting it so well. I’m one of your followers who won’t be “unfriending” you. 🙂

  3. Hi Austin – your blog made me think about how difficult it is for mainstream cultures to assimilate marginal groups, which have also been considered alien/other.

    There is the job of interpretation/ translation, for which we need translators – perhaps in the first instance who can be trusted by both parties, and who pave the way for authentic voices from the marginal culture to be heard.

    I personally believe Steve Silberman to be a sincere and inclusive ally – I’ve seen the man in a action and he never misses an opportunity to promote autistic voices as you also say. He is also extremely modest and talks not as an expert on autism but as a historian and observer of a culture.

    He usually talks about the history, his discoveries and tells stories about people he knows or knows of – he is accurate and respectful.

    No Steve is not autistic, but he is deeply empathic to our cause and driven by his own history of oppression as a gay man, which in my mind has been a parallel struggle. His work on Neurotribes has enabled me to feel optimistic about a better future for autistics and I’m extremely grateful

    NTs will construe things in their own light always – l’m more than happy for Steve to be a sensible and knowledgable counterpoint to organisations such as A$

    The ideal moment will have been reached when we autistics as listened to first – I feel Steve is the messenger

    I understand your discomfort but I don’t think this could have played out another way & is purely transitional – our time is coming.

      • It’s like we are doing the real taking amongst ourselves. We ARE at the cultural forefront of our community – the NT’s only get autism-lite from an NT observer (not being rude to Steve) but right now they probably couldn’t assimilate the full beam version. Can you imagine the total revolution in thinking that fully fully coming to grips with our thinking would be for NT?

        It’s a real pleasure to talk with you about this – you challenge me too.

        I think perhaps I am more cynical about NT audiences. They operate from such a limited perspective it is possible that Steve is our Al Jolson. I don’t like that analogy too much but it makes sense to me right now. There is a great deal of prejudice still out there.

        And I too have wondered at times about the Steve Silberman effect – so I do take your points which are very well put!

        And I really do agree with other commenters that we have a huge amount of talent in our community and we absolutely should be heard first.

  4. Austin, thanks for bringing up this important issue. I want you to know that it’s so important to me personally, that I have been trying for a long time now to do something much more subversive than “name drop” artistic writers, as you put it. Instead, when I have the leverage to do so, I actively yield and try to give autistic writers a bigger platform in the conversation.

    I’ll give you some recent examples. When the Autism Society of America asked me to do the closing keynote in their annual national meeting, I insisted that instead it be turned into a panel of autistic adults talking about whatever issues they wanted to bring up. This turned into a wonderful event offering a diverse range of autistic voices, with me there only to facilitate the questions that they themselves had generated.(See @OfficialHotMike’s tweets.) Just yesterday, here at the AMAZE conference in Australia, when I was asked a question about autism and sports, instead of answering, I invited Tony Langdon – a longtime autistic self advocate online who blogs about sports – to the stage to answer instead of me. I do this often in talks. When I’m asked a question, and there are autistic people in the audience who I know enough to know that they would be comfortable with this, I hand them the mike so they can talk instead of me. Also just yesterday, when I was invited by the organizers of this conference to chair a panel of artistic self advocates, I made apologies beforehand and simply didn’t show up until the very end, just to make one remark about practical ways of inserting more artistic voices in the global conversation – knowing that they certainly didn’t need me to host their panel, and in fact it would be better without me.

    For years now, when I’m asked for a quote for a news story by mainstream media, I provide the reporters with contact information for autistic adults, so they can be quoted on the relevant issues. Working with ASAN, I have funded a writing prize for autistic journalists that will be awarded for the first time at their next annual gala. When parents ask me at conferences what they should be reading, I often put book books by autistic authors at the top of the list, as I did yesterday by referring to Michelle Sutton’s “The Real Experts.” (See @michelleswrites retweet – I would type in these links myself, but I’m on a phone in Australia.) As many tweets from yesterday will attest, I constantly refer parents and media to autistic adults for both mentorship of their children and relevant quotes for news stories. I also highlight books by and for autistic people on my resources page on my website: I have also made an effort to make myself preferentially available to autistic journalists and bloggers like Dylan Matthews of Vice and Emily Brooks of The Toast. At @stevesilberman on Twitter, I constantly retweet autistic tweeters, which is not just “name dropping” in the age of social media – it’s signal boosting.

    I agree with you that this is not an easy issue to solve. I can’t single-handedly correct for decades of autistic underrepresentation in media, which is a much larger issue – one that I believe mainstream journalists and autistic people need to be working together to solve. So that I don’t talk too much here, this will be my last post in this thread. But I thank you for bringing this up and I will drop back in here as my schedule permits just to read, in my continuing effort to seek guidance from autistic people and try to be a good ally.

  5. Pingback: Rising to the challenge of Neurotribes – Under Your Radar

  6. Reblogged this on the silent wave and commented:
    As much as I like Steve Silberman, and as grateful as I am that he’s not advocating for genocide, abusive therapies, or any other such nonsense, AFlickeringLife makes an excellent point that needed to be made, and I thank them for having the courage and taking the time to do so. 🙂

  7. In your comments on Steve Silberman and the fact he’s not autistic and yet he’s written a book that speaks about our community, one point has been overlooked: Mr Silberman is – first and foremost – a talented professional writer.
    Prior to writing Neurotribes, he honed his skill for many years writing for magazines. He learned to write articles the public would respond to, and the success of his book reflects that. Last year he wrote an autism book that captured the attention of the broad public, something that is very hard to do today.
    You say that autistic voices should be the dominant voices speaking about our community, and I could not agree more. But how do we accomplish that – that is the question.
    If we want our voices to be heard outside our communities, we must write things that engage those target audiences. Thats hard to do, for a lot of reasons. And it’s hard for everyone – not just autistics.
    Mr Silberman had a 30 year career learning the craft of writing before bringing out Neurotribes. Do we have autistic writers who are putting in similar time, and about to bring out their own books on autism? I don’t know. I do know that his writing skill and his sense of the public interest played significant roles in his success, and if autistic writers want to find similar success communicating with the wider public they would do well to emulate that model.
    At least that’s my view of the situation.
    I too look forward to the day when a broad range of autistic writers dominate the field of writing about our tribe.

  8. I’m happy to help, in any way I can. Here’s a thought to ponder: Some of my most widely seen content is my photography. The photos are just art; they do not have any sort of message as a rule. I often get thousands of views for a good photo (though I confess I can’t often tell which ones will be chosen as “good” by the viewers) which is more than I get for most written essays. That said, I think the photos open the door to the writing, and people are initially drawn in by the art – which speaks to anyone – and they then linger to read more specific written messages.

    We need to think hard about how to constructively engage the public

    • It’s interesting you say that. I find that the lighter content I post, almost as a rule, has the same effect. It’s a great door. And I think on this often as I work in the media. I’ve made studying public engagement my career actually. I certainly know that entries with pictures, especially of my baby, do better than ones without, etc. I really am trying to build on these ideas.

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