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Hay Festival 2016: Saturday

A photograph of Stuart Proffitt and Steve Silberman

Saturday began early, or at least early by Hay standards – 10am, when the traffic jam of cars making their way to the festival, full of all the people who are just beginning their holiday, means you will be lucky to make it on time if you have breakfast at the reasonable hour of 7 with a dozen miles between you and the site. I made it and sat down for Steve Silberman’s conversation with Stuart Proffitt; I chose it because Silberman was one of the Wellcome Book Prize shortlisters this year and, having not seen him at the blogger brunch (he couldn’t make it) I was interested in hearing him speak about his book before I read it.

He may not have won the Wellcome prize, but Silberman has won others, including the Samuel Johnson. He said that since he wrote the book he’s had numerous people ask if he has autism or if he knows someone who does. The answer is no. Most of what he had known about autism before he became interested in it was from the film, Rain Man. We didn’t know of so many people having autism back then, he said. People were told, when they met an autistic person, or became a parent of one, that that person would be the only autistic person they’d ever know. The origins of Silberman’s book, Neurotribes, lie in an article he wrote. It went viral in the years before social media – many people emailed him about it and it became well known. People wrote to him about their problems.

This is the standard history of autism: autism was discovered by a scientist, Leo Connor, who wrote a paper about his patients. Then a man called Hans Asperger wrote a paper about a few other people. These were separate papers but published only a year apart. The actual history: in the mid 1930s, working in a children’s clinic, Asperger discovered the autistic spectrum.

Asperger knew it was a lifelong condition. His clinic was part residential school, a different type of place to most in those days. It was a humane environment; the staff were able to see exactly what autism was and wasn’t. The children of the clinic became a target of the Nazis; the place was used as a trial for the Holocaust. Asperger’s work was stronger because he was giving it, information about the children, to the Nazis in the hope that it would save them. He worked very hard to save lives and showed how the children could be put to work doing things such as computer coding. He turned to emigration for help, but unfortunately American immigration laws were strict. He had to find someone to vouch for the children, and this is where Leo Connor came into the story.

Connor was trying to start child psychiatry as a discipline; he called autism a subset of psychiatry, wanting to show how autism was linked to high intelligence. Silberman said it was a very narrow model: Connor recommended institutionalised care and prescribed a daily dose of LSD to his patients, causing anxiety.

A photograph of deck chairs with artwork by cartoonist, Matt

Parents of the children were subjected to shaming. In those days, Silberman said, families were meant to take photographs of their autistic children out of albums, to forget the children and move on with their lives. To speak about them was to infer you yourself had mental issues. This, he continued, was why you didn’t hear of autism years ago, not because it’s over-diagnosed nowadays but because in those past years no one spoke about it, they hid it. In later years, parents were happier to accept the non-stigmatising ‘Asperger’s syndrome’ rather than ‘autism’.

Connor never mentioned Asperger’s paper; it was re-found some years later. The scientist had played down the German’s work; it’s possible this was because Connor was a Jew and Asperger had worked for the Nazis, however much that work was to protect the children.

Silberman is against the idea that vaccinations cause autism. He said the person who wrote that paper didn’t know anything about autism.

The Internet has improved communication and helped articulation for those with autism. Silberman said that Connor would never believe ‘articulation culture’ would be possible. He hopes ‘neurodiversity’ will give pride in the way other positive phrases now do. We should look at autism as a lifelong common disability.

Genetic research is interesting, but autistic people and their families should not be left alone. We need funding for adults rather than spending money on finding out the cause of the condition; the illusion that autism has gone viral makes people look for a cause. Silberman recounted the story of a 70 year old man who said that before his diagnosis, at that age, people had simply called him an engineer. Few studies are conducted around adults.

Silberman doesn’t like the phrase ‘high functioning’ because it creates the opposite phrase ‘low functioning’ and this second phrase puts barriers in front of people who could excel with help. Exclusion stops others learning that disability is a way of life.

A paper recently stated that autism is worse than diabetes and cancer. (That one needed a few moments as I’m sure you’ll understand!)

Services in Silicon Valley are very good and people move their families there. Hi-tech communities have many autistic employees; the employees’ children are often autistic, too. However: “Not every kid should be pushed to work at Apple… they should be encouraged in whatever they’re interested in.” The expectation of genius is a big problem.

On over-diagnosis, Silberman had this to say: we’re definitely not over-diagnosing autism in women and people of colour. Women can be missed because the criteria for autism is male, the research done on men’s brains.

We ended on historical jobs, when the stereotype of computer genius was not around. Autistic people in previous eras may have been weavers, Silberman said.

A photograph of Rosie Goldsmith, Marcos Giralt Torrente, Yuri Herrera, Ben Okri

Next was a session about Shakespeare and Cervantes, one of several taking place due to the anniversary of the Bard’s death – Marcos Giralt Torrente and Yuri Herrera talking to Rosie Goldsmith, and later joined by Ben Okri who was on his way from Edinburgh.

Herrera hopes Cervantes’ work will find a bigger readership in Mexico, saying Mexicans feel Cervantes is theirs as much as he’s Spanish. Goldsmith noted the writer is considered the poet of Spanish literature.

But Cervantes is not known so much in Spain as Shakespeare is in Britain, said Giralt Torrente. Shakespeare is a part of popular culture, said Herrera, in films, in the words we use. (If you remember my post on World Book Night, Holly Bourne said Shakespeare invented the words ‘eyeball’ and ‘lonely’.) Shakespeare’s characters are very close in their mentality to us now, Giralt Torrente said, to which Herrera added, the drama is like modern politics.

On the collection of stories based on Shakespeare and Cervantes that the three authors, including Okri, who had just arrived, have contributed to, Herrera said he assumed whatever play he chose it would be a task to create something new. Okri felt the pull of the past writers and said that Shakespeare fits in with the way our minds work. He preferred to write something in the form of a play, the way it used to be done.

Okri’s father used to let him dust the family’s books but never let him read them, so Okri was surrounded by Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dickens… and did end up reading them. He’s always felt Don Quixote to be African – the storytelling nature of it – and said the book shows that the best adventures are spiritual. “[The character] is said to have gone mad because he read too many books – I’m looking forward to that day!”

Full speed ahead towards another tent for Joan Bakewell’s Wellcome lecture. I was interested in hearing what she might say in regards to the recent fracas about anorexia and choice, and, similarly to my reasons for attending Steve Silberman’s event, I wanted to hear from someone who took part in the Prize.

A photograph of Joan Bakewell

Bakewell said she took the public response to her comments seriously and read the books recommended to her. She said that what she’d meant was that the world has caused a level of self-regard that’s led to anorexia. It seems that to blame the body is okay, but to blame the mind is bad. During the commotion, she felt she saw something she otherwise wouldn’t have thought about – she was right in there, amongst the outrage, as she uses social media.

She talked about Suzanne O’Sullivan, winner of the Wellcome Book Prize, saying that we’re living in a time of an epidemic of anxiety. We used to be more about community, used to have a slower pace of life. “We live in an urgent world. It’s damaging family life and taking its toll on health.” Last year, 76% of primary and 94% of secondary school teachers thought exams caused children too much stress. She quoted from someone (I’m afraid I’ve forgotten who) saying that there’s never been a time where we’ve had less time with our brain.

“The first thing is to not make people feel guilty,” she said about mental illness. More stress in the world has been followed by more self-harm.

A photograph of Cristina Fuentes

My last event was the launch of the Hay Festival that will take place in Querétaro, Mexico, between 1st and 4th September this year. At the launch was the mayor of the city, Marcos Aguilar Vega, Cristina Fuentes, who is directing the festival, and Peter Florence of the main Hay festival. I also found out that in the next year there will be a Hay Festival in Denmark, in the city of Aarhus. Dates aren’t set yet but if you’ll be in Denmark and love books, watch this space!



June 10, 2016, 9:48 pm

Sounds like another interesting and enjoyable day at the festival.

Literary Feline

June 11, 2016, 1:59 am

All of the sessions you attended that Saturday sound fascinating, especially the one on mental illness and the one on autism. Thanks for sharing, Charlie!


June 11, 2016, 6:34 am

This reinforces the diversity of topics that makes Hay such a wonderful event.



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