Steve Silberman writes eloquently about the history of autism in his new book NeuroTribes, as well as in a TED talk (transcript) and various other articles. I think this resonates with me particularly, because I see a parallel in my own history.

I spent decades undiagnosed. I was “weird”, “shy”, “nerdy”, “a daydreamer”, “awkward”, even “gifted”. All the signs were there, but not the necessary context and understanding of what was going on. In a similar way, history is teeming with folks who, had they existed in the right context, would be considered capital-A Autistic. Silberman’s book gives a gripping account of several, including Henry Cavendish and Hugo Gernsback.

Being undiagnosed doesn’t feel weird at all. You don’t feel “undiagnosed.” You just are who you are. It’s only later, once the necessary information and context come into play, that you can look back at past events and understand why certain things happened the way they did. (in other words: reality)

The history of autism is an intensely human story. Hans Asperger, in particular, went to lengths to shield children from the eugenic tendencies of the rising Third Reich. Others pushed for theories that helped them get ahead personally, often without much regard for facts. The result was a society fetishized on “normal” and far more often making things worse than making them better.

But that’s all starting to change. Recent stats show as many as 1 in 68 children scoring somewhere on the spectrum. This isn’t an epidemic. This isn’t even new. It’s an awakening to something that’s always been there. It’s information and context necessary to understand that normal might be bigger than you think, and we all need to keep working on understanding and helping each other.

If this is all new to you, I recommend starting with NeuroTribes.