“A six-year-old boy,” reported the Times of India, “has been returned to his parents after being in the company of wolves for four and a half years.” In the fall of 1957, shortly after this story appeared, a curious sociologist traced the story’s origins. There was a boy who had been found alone, who spoke few words and seemed “interested in people only as objects.” But there were no wolves. Scholars have argued that this boy, named Parasram, and many children before him belong to the pre-history of autism. And really, consider it: An unspeaking child is found untended in the wild, and we conclude that she or he was stolen by wolves or nursed by pumas. We interpret scars as evidence of a life among beasts. There is a deficit of humanity in these stories, but it doesn’t belong to the abandoned children or to the nurturing packs and prides. The deficit lies in our inability to recognize ourselves among the less-familiar forms of human experience.
In a new book, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, the author Steve Silberman documents society’s emergence from this pre-history. He describes people who, given a supportive environment, thrived in the days before autism had a name. There was Lord Henry Cavendish, an 18th-century physicist who isolated himself on his England estate. “The way to talk to Cavendish,” one colleague advised, “is never to look at him.” In 1797, Cavendish set an elaborate system of weights and rods swinging, and using this contraption accurately estimated the mass of the Earth. There was the protégé of Nikola Tesla who pioneered mail-order gadgetry and science-fiction publishing, and the visionary computer scientist who gave us the term “artificial intelligence,” as well many of the field’s tools. As Silberman collects these compelling figures, he makes a quiet argument that autism has always been among us, that its features define one of the many dimensions of human potential. His book is never far from a human face, from a personal story that reminds the reader how much is at stake.