LONDON (Reuters) - American writer Steve Silberman’s autism book “Neurotribes” won the 2015 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction on Monday and the author said he hoped the attention would help support efforts to have autistic people play a more productive role in society.
Silberman’s is the first work of popular science to win the prestigious British award in its 17-year history and comes at a time of growing public awareness of the neurodevelopmental disorder that affects millions of people around the world, the prize committee said in awarding the prize to Silberman.
“When I started writing about autism in 2001 I thought I was going to be doing journalism about a very rare neurological disorder,” Silberman told Reuters at the awards ceremony in London.
“I ended up writing about the long journey of a group of people towards freedom and self-determination and that is in many ways the great story of our time,” Silberman, who noted that he is gay and that his husband had supported him while he was writing the book, said.
“I think autistic people are coming into their own and demanding a place at the table when public policy is formulated that affects their lives and affects the lives of their families and I think that’s the future,” he added.
Silberman became interested in autism when he wrote a ground-breaking article for Wired magazine in 2001 about the seemingly high incidence of the condition among the children of successful tech couples in Silicon Valley.
His book, the full title of which is “Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently”, delves into the history of the diagnosis of autism simultaneously by Hans Asperger in Nazi-controlled Vienna and in the United States by Leo Kanner.
Asperger saw that the condition was not unusual and was manifested in a family of traits, including socially awkward behavior and precocious abilities, while Kanner described it as an uncommon condition that was triggered by cold behavior by a child’s parents.
Silberman argues that Kanner’s picture of autism stigmatized parents and the children suffering from the condition, a situation that is only now being rectified.
“We admired Silberman’s work because it is powered by a strongly argued set of beliefs: That we should stop drawing sharp lines between what we assume to be ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’, and that we should remember how much the differently wired human brain has, can and will contribute to our world,” historian and journalist Anne Applebaum, chair of judges, said.
“He has injected a hopeful note into a conversation that’s normally dominated by despair.”
The prize, which is open to books published in English by authors of any nationality, carries a 20,000-pound ($30,900) cash award. Last year’s winner was English writer Helen Macdonald’s “H is for Hawk”, about her decision to train a goshawk as a way of dealing with the grief of losing her father.
Reporting by Michael Roddy; Editing by Tom Brown