Features & Columns

A Different State of Mind:
Embracing Autism, Asperger's and Intellectual Diversity in Silicon Valley

In 2011, Steve Silberman spotted a link, and now he digs deeper
into the neurodiversity acceptance movement
SECOND THOUGHTS: Steve Silberman, who first wrote in 2001 about the high numbers of autism cases in Silicon Valley, is now exploring a new view of autism as a form of human variation.

When Steve Silberman penned a report for Wired magazine on the apparent proliferation of autism in Silicon Valley 13 years ago, experts described the spike as a worrisome epidemic. In "The Geek Syndrome," one of the first articles in the mainstream press to explore the little-understood mental condition, the San Francisco-based science writer warned of a "dark and unsettling" trend playing out in the South Bay tech hub, where state social workers identified a marked surge in the number of children with some measure of Asperger's or autism spectrum disorder.

Silberman cited geneticists who theorized that the rise of autism in tech hubs like the valley may stem from what they dubbed "assortative mating": mildly autistic engineering types have kids with one another, creating a generation of more severely autistic offspring.

"At the time I wrote that story, a lot of the parents I interviewed believed that the combined intelligence of the Silicon Valley would have come up with either the cause of autism or the cure," he says. "Neither of those things happened."

Today, those families would rather talk about the dearth of social services and support for their children, who are now on the verge of aging out of school and into adulthood. The hysteria that used to center the national conversation about autism on causes and cures gave way to one of how to accommodate a population of people whose atypical intellect turned out to be a lot less rare than we thought. In fact, it's become something of a parlor game among media to speculatively diagnose famous geeks, like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Nikola Tesla, William Shockley or Alan Turing and other tech geniuses who come off as pedantic and awkward in interviews.

"I began to write a book because I could never get that 2001 story off my mind," says Silberman, who still receives emails from autistic people and their families about the article. "The idea for the book arose because, in a sense, I felt like by obsessing about rising numbers of diagnoses in Silicon Valley and around the world, I had been focusing on the wrong thing. There are so many things about that story that I'm still proud of, particularly talking about the emergence of autistic culture and neurodiversity—a term used to describe the range of intellectual variations—but my view of the situation shifted dramatically."

In 2015, Avery Penguin will publish the sum of Silberman's research under the title Neurotribes: Thinking Smarter About People Who Think Differently. The volume will look at the two prevailing views of autism that have competed for public attention and resources: one that sees it as a psychiatric disability, and another that recognizes it as a form of human variation with its own distinctive strengths, customs and culture.

The first view prevailed for decades. Autism was considered a mental illness. Autistic people were sometimes relegated to solitary occupations, holed up in monasteries or left to drift. Solitary Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh is considered by many to have demonstrated autistic traits, such as being "insensitive to the subtleties of human expression, finding it difficult to tell the difference between truth and humor between a blink, a knowing wink or a facial tic," writes Roy Richard Grinker in his book Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism. Many of the artist's paintings, including Starry Night, depict patterns of light and dark that suggest he intuited mathematical forms of turbulent flow in air and water.

"The works were created when van Gogh was mentally unstable: the artist is known to have experienced psychotic episodes in which he had hallucinations, minor fits and lapses of consciousness, perhaps indicating epilepsy," reads a 2006 article in the science journal Nature.

Or autism, as Grandin often suggests.

By the 1950s, it was widely accepted that autism was caused by a maternal lack of affection, which caused children to retreat into their own minds. More recently, in a movement led by ex-Playboy model Jenny McCarthy, parents railed against Big Pharma for sickening a generation of children with vaccines believed to cause autism.

But in the past generation or so, autistic people began to speak for themselves. They began to articulate their experiences in a way neurotypicals (as they sometimes call the general population) could fathom, which helped steer the conversation toward how to cope with autism rather than how it started or how to get rid of it. Temple Grandin published her autobiography Thinking in Pictures in 1995, describing the way she processed information into an extensive mental log of photorealistic images. She talked about how she coped with sensory overload and how she learned to read emotions by memorizing facial expressions—an ability that comes intuitively to most people. It was the first time the world read a first-person account of an Asperger's worldview. People thought the fact that she wrote a book, earned a college degree, and spoke openly and articulately meant she was "cured."

"Now everyone thinks of Temple as the archetypal autistic adult," Silberman says. "But that is a very clear indication of how the diagnosis has changed. Before Temple came along, autistic adults were virtually invisible."

Technology brought myriad more insights into the autistic mind as computers and automation opened up the lines of communication between neurotypicals and their eccentrically wired intellectual counterparts. In 2007, a 13-year-old Japanese boy, nonverbal and deeply affected by autism, wrote a memoir by spelling out words on a cardboard alphabet grid. His parents then uploaded the result online, where Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell, whose own son is autistic, found it and translated it. The Reason I Jump by Haoki Higashida consists of brief chapters that start with questions like, "Why do you like spinning?" or, "Why do you speak in that peculiar way?" Silberman notes that a boy who may have been written off as "low-functioning" for his muteness was able to articulate so much depth. It's why Silberman avoids the terms low- or high-functioning altogether—they're inaccurate and misleading.

"This Japanese boy's book gives us a glimpse into an absolutely beautiful, profound mind and is able to explain autism from the inside in a way that someone who isn't autistic cannot do," he says.

Silberman notes that with the increasing ubiquity of iPads and other technologies, people like Higashida have more ability to communicate, often on devices designed by engineers with similar cognitive proclivities, similar tendencies to obsess over patterns or tune into the mesmerizing predictability of codes, mathematics and mechanical routine.

"I'm trying to encourage dialogue in our society to focus on how autistic people have always been here," Silberman says. "What's exciting is that, with technology, this may be the first time in history to embrace people who think in atypical ways. Computers and machines give us a chance to do right by these people because it turns out that autistic people are fantastically imaginative. They're excellent pattern-recognizers. If we can harness autistic intelligence, we can make tremendous advances in our society and the way we view the world."

Imagine if the $60 million that scientists in China are spending on research to isolate the genetic source of autism, a project funded by find-the-cure nonprofit Autism Speaks, were instead used to advance technologies that allowed people with atypical mental mechanics to live more independently.There's no clear-cut figure for how many autistic people are out there. The Centers for Disease Control says that about 1 in 88 kids have a spectrum disorder. Silberman believes there are many more.

"I think society is coming to a point of reckoning," he says. "Clearly there are more people with autism than we first thought. Now, the most important thing is to take care of autistic people and their families. Parents are afraid to die because they worry there will be no one around to care for their grown children, no social services or relatives with the time and energy. No matter where autism comes from and whether or not it's becoming more common or just more readily diagnosed, these are people who are part of our communities."