Autism: diversity of a neurotribe


Autism came late to Scottish education. In 1995, no pupils were identified or recorded as having autism in any Scottish school according to the then Scottish Office’s statistical bulletins. In 2015 11, 722 children and young people were identified as having an additional support need arising from autistic spectrum disorder. If you believe that autism is a modern epidemic then that data can look compelling.

In February 2015, President Trump in a meeting with teachers said the following words. These are the very words, they are not fake words. TRUE!

“So what’s going on with autism?” Trump asked. “When you look at the tremendous increase, it’s really such an incredible — it’s really a horrible thing to watch, the tremendous amount of increase. Do you have any idea?”

Well we do.

In the main thanks to two recently published books that together offer the narrative of the history of autism.  Silberman’s Neurotribes and Donovan and Zucker’s A Different Key provide broadly similar accounts of an unrecognized and therefore undiagnosed condition and the struggle that generated for families.  In A Different Key part of the story centres on Donald T (no, not that Donald T!) but Donald Triplett from Forest, Mississippi who was the first person diagnosed with autism by Dr Leo Kanner in 1940s in Baltimore.   While Neurotribes gives an account of autism with a focus on Hans Asperger and his ’little professors” in Vienna in 1940s.   Both books provide the historical perspective not just of autism but in fact the social and political contexts for views on disability and difference across centuries.

“Knowing one person autism, means you know one person with autism” is a useful truism about a neurological condition.   Silberman welcomes the concept of neurodiversity “the notion that conditions like autism, dyslexia and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder should be regarded as naturally occurring cognitive variations with distinctive strengths”. While Donovan and Zucker highlight a broader understanding of diversity as “the impulse to recognize the difference among us as part of us, and to root for their full participation in the world. That project is a work in progress.”

Across both books the stories of individuals with autism and their families are told. Their frustrations and battles with social services, pleas for recognition, journeys down blind alleys, battles and movements to improve services and ultimately inclusive communities to take better account of autism are shared in each account. Silberman, a writer from Wired, writes from a geek perspective and an affinity with Asperger’s “little professors” while Donovan and Zucker considers the supportive community and its response to Donald Triplett. Both cover the heroines of autism such as Temple Grandin, the author and academic and the villains in autism such as Andrew Wakefield who falsified his research on vaccines linking them to autism. (Worryingly, President Trump is seemingly validating Wakefield in similar ways as Nigel Farage.)

The major difference among the two accounts of autism appears in their perspectives on the two earliest explorers of autism: Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger. SIlberman aligns with Asperger and his “little professors” while Donovan and Zucker engage with a deeper view of Kanner’s work.  Donovan and Zucker then discover that Asperger was part of the Nazi response to those with disabilities and he may have been part of the murder of hundreds of disabled children in “specialist children’s wards “ set up by the Nazis. Maybe appropriate that Asperger’s Syndrome is no longer recognsied as a distinct diagnosis within the USA’s Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM).

Were you to read one book it might just be that Donovan and Zucker edges ahead, though reading both is recommended.

In Scotland there is now a national autism strategy and within additional support for learning reports are identified the 1.3% of the school population receiving support in school from a teacher recognized label of autistic spectrum disorder. In Scotland the data also shows that just under 20% of those with additional support based around ASD gain the qualifications for higher education. Those little professors, that neurodiverse tribe are now counted and valued in mainstream Scottish schools. The vast majority of young people with autism are included successfully in mainstream schools and not only that their attainment data scores are improving.

Maybe inclusive supportive communities will continue to grow from inclusive supportive learning environments for all our tribes.


Background reading

Autism’s First Child The Atlantic (October 2010)

Autistic disturbances of affective contact. Kanner L. Nervous Child 2, 217-250 (1943) PDF

Autism and Scottish Education information from data, Laura Meikle and David Watt in Good Autism Practice, (2013)

In A Different Key: the story of autism Donovan and Zucker Allen and Lane (2016)

NeuroTribes: the legacy of autism Silberman Allen and Unwin 2015

Scottish Office Statistical Bulletin Provision of Education for Pupils with Special Educational Needs (February 1995)

The Autistic Brain by Temple Grandin (Brain Science Podcast 98 and 99)


Author: dknwatt

Up to recently, I was the Senior Education Officer for Inclusion and Equalities with Education Scotland, Scotland's education improvement agency. Throughout my career, I worked in schools, education authorities and nationally to promote inclusion and reduce barriers to learning for differing groups. Latterly, I was Scotland's Representative Board member with the European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education. I worked as HM Inspector from 2002. As well as leading work in inspecting special schools and units, autism and tackling sectarianism I have presented on diversity, inclusion and equity across Scotland, Europe and in Pakistan. I enjoy coffee, football, learning and family holidays.

One thought on “Autism: diversity of a neurotribe”

  1. “Donovan and Zucker then discover that Asperger was part of the Nazi response to those with disabilities and he may have been part of the murder of hundreds of disabled children in “specialist children’s wards “ set up by the Nazis. Maybe appropriate that Asperger’s Syndrome is no longer recognsied as a distinct diagnosis within the USA’s Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM).”

    With all due respect, but this association seems to completely ignore the considerable amount of historic, international research in favour of Asperger’s vital research.
    I am Jewish, dyslexic and autistic, studying ASDs from both a personal, but also a professional perspective, and I am saddened by the utmost lack of specialised academic background by authors Donovan and Zucker.
    I’m not going to enter into personal polemics, quoting nevertheless from Mental Health and Medical Journalism award winner Steve Silberman, who in the following article gives a fair and lucid analysis of the situation of a medical pioneer living in an impossible period:
    “Asperger and his colleagues would eventually examine more than 200 children with autism at all levels of ability — from nonspeaking children who would always require assistance in their daily lives to a young man who became an assistant professor of astronomy after detecting an error in one of Isaac Newton’s proofs. Asperger noted the prevalence of autistic traits among “distinguished scientists,” and went so far as to say, “It seems that for success in science and art, a dash of autism is essential … the necessary ingredient may be an ability to turn away from the everyday world, from the simply practical, an ability to rethink a subject with originality so as to create in new untrodden ways.”


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