Steve Silberman, author of NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity

One of the most hardcore Grateful Dead fans, who has written numerous essays and liner notes for official releases, also wrote a New York Times Best Seller: NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity.
Steve Silberman discusses the Grateful Dead, autism, and his book.


Cory:               00:02         
This is It’s a Grateful Dead radio program that features the official releases from the Grateful Dead. From time to time, we get an interview and we like to upload that to our website and get it up as a podcast. Feel free to subscribe to the podcast. That way you can get these interviews delivered to your “Handy Dandy” smarty pants phone. The month of April is “Autism Acceptance Month” and one of the most hardcore Grateful Dead fans who has written numerous essays and liner notes for the official releases. He also wrote a New York Times best seller. It’s called “NeuroTribes: the Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity.” Here we chatted up with Steve Silberman who talks a little bit about autism and he also makes these fascinating connections to the Grateful Dead and autism.

Steve Silberman:    01:04         
My name is Steve Silberman and I confess I lead a double life. Most of the people who know me in the world know me as the author of a New York Times bestselling history of autism called “Neurotribes, the Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity.”

Cory:               01:29         
That book came out in 2015 and translated in about 15 different languages. Now, as for the other set of people who know the name “Steve Silberman,” they speak the language of the Grateful Dead. He wrote a book about the band as well and that came out in the early 90’s – along with another Dead Head – David Shenk

Steve Silberman:    01:46         
Called “Skeleton Key, a Dictionary for Deadheads” and then went on to co-produce the box set So Many Roads.

Cory:               01:54         
He’s also written many liner notes for several Grateful Dead releases, solo releases for Jerry Garcia plus other liner notes he’s provided for Crosby, Stills and Nash, Crosby – Nash, and David Crosby.

Steve Silberman:    02:06         
I have this sort of interestingly weird, which has probably suitable for me, life that is half devoted to science writing and that’s the part that pays the rent, and half devoted to Grateful Dead liner note writing, which certainly does not pay the rent but is fun and allows me to listen to a lot of music that I loved seeing when I was a kid.

Cory:               02:30         
Now this might surprise some people, but there are connections of autism in the Grateful Dead society. I first learned about autism in the Grateful Dead when I was reading Peter Conner’s book, “Cornell 77, the Music, the Myth, and the Magnificence of the Grateful Dead’s concert at Barton Hall”

Peter Conners:      02:47         
I felt like the idea of doing a whole book about a single show was a little batty. It seemed a little extreme.

Cory:               02:54         
So Conner’s book has a lot more than just a review of the 5-8-77 show. So he talks a little bit more about tape trading, deadheads, other legendary Grateful Dead shows. He also discusses the band’s sound man, the early archivist, and financial backer of the Grateful Dead. That’s Owsley Stanley, also known as Bear. A few quotes from Silberman mentioned the autistic traits of Bear.

Steve Silberman:    03:17         
Owsley of course, not only made better acid than Sandoz pharmaceuticals in Switzerland, the guys who invented LSD. He also invented the concepts behind the Wall Of Sound. He also invented basically dead taping because he was the one who said that every show should be taped.

Steve Silberman:    03:40         
And he really invented, I would say modern concert amplification

Steve Silberman:    03:45         
Because when the Dead first appeared, everybody, even the Beatles used these so called voice of the theater, speaker horns that were just like good for blasting but not much dynamic range or detail and Owsley replaced it with really a stereo system that where you’d get a 3-D image in space of the band playing. If you closed your eyes.

Cory:               04:17         
Bear’s accomplishments, whether it was concert amplification or the science of LSD. Those possible autistic traits helped with his incredible work. Silberman says in Conner’s book, and he also mentioned it again with me, that if Bear wasn’t diagnosed as autistic that he definitely had autistic traits and it served the band and the hippie culture very well. While talking about the traits of an autistic individual, it can be difficult because every case is different with autism.

Steve Silberman:    04:43         
Autistic people are more different from each other than non autistic people are and that is certainly true because he was such a broad range of abilities, capabilities, the challenges, things that are difficult in the autism community. It’s in a way it’s broader than the non autistic community.

Cory:               05:04         
Now, I was really fascinated by an interview featuring Silberman’s experience at an autistic retreat.

Steve Silberman:    05:10         
Yeah, it was called Autreat because it was designed by autistic people for autistic people. Most autism conferences are designed by non autistic people. I. E. Parents, you know, or clinicians or researchers or whatever. And so they actually don’t even know necessarily how to make the environment comfortable for autistic people.

Cory:               05:31         
One of the reasons why I was so impressed with the interview was about how they changed the environment, so it was so accommodating, but I couldn’t help but see a connection to the parking lot scene that you would find at a Grateful Dead show and Silberman’s experience at Autreat.

Steve Silberman:    05:47         
It was really a wonderful opportunity to see autistic people just being comfortable with themselves. Autistic people are known for having very profound special interests. A special interest is basically something you love so much that you know you devote a lot of your life’s energy to it. So people at this conference, instead of seeing special interest as pathological, like, “oh, they’re overly obsessed with gaming.” You know, it’s like people were invited to bring what they love. So like if they were to like Star Trek, some guy brought a little portable video player so that he could watch his favorite episodes of Star Trek and share them with other people. So it was a very artistic, friendly environment.

Cory:               06:31         
Diving deeper into that idea of having a profound interest and tying it back into the Grateful Dead, well we’d have to bring up tapes and collecting Grateful Dead shows. Silberman talks about an experience that he had with a particular taper that he met back in the eighties

Steve Silberman:    06:47         
I was invited over to the apartment of somebody who allegedly had more tapes than the vault.

Steve Silberman:    07:05         
So I go to his apartment. It was in a very bland high rise tower in Emeryville and hardly anybody in the bay area, particularly deadheads like lives in bland high rise towers. But this guy did and every wall was covered with racks of cassettes. Every wall, like there’s nothing else going on really in the apartment besides these racks of cassettes. And he had like, you know, five Nakamichi decks, you know, going all day at night. And he was copying tapes and you know, he didn’t really talk about anything but tapes.

Cory:               07:42         
At that time the knowledge about autism was very limited. It only described a very narrow set of people and it only applied to children. So teens and adults weren’t diagnosed with autism. However, a new diagnosis called Asperger’s Syndrome was added to the Bible of psychiatry. So autism was broadened into a spectrum.

Steve Silberman:    08:02         
Well, looking back at that guy who was very nice and generous with his tapes, he had Asperger’s Syndrome. I would bet on it and he was, believe me, not the only person like that I ever met.

Cory:               08:23         
Silberman connects some more dots with autism back to the Grateful Dead.

Steve Silberman:    08:27         
If anybody ever asks me: “what are the most autistic books ever written?” I would say Dead Base. Dead Base is so autistic.

Cory:               08:39         
At we actually talked with Stu Nixon, coauthor of the Dead Base series. You can listen to that interview over at the website

Stu Nixon:          08:46         
It predominantly was based on Grateful Dead concerts. Of all the set lists and then analysis of the data of the concerts – showing every time it was played and what song was played before it and after it and how many times a song was played, how many times the band played at all the different venues, cities, and states, and locations, reviews by dead heads who were at the shows and a lot of photographs. All of the Garcia and Weir set lists – GarciaBase and WeirBase – with added new sections for the bands that followed on after that with Grateful Dead members.

Steve Silberman:    09:39         
Having met the editors of DeadBase, I still would say that!

Cory:               09:56         
The autistic traits don’t just stop with the studies of the Grateful Dead. Even physical traits can have that Grateful Dead vibe.

Steve Silberman:    10:04         
One of the things that some autistic people do is to move in rhythmical fashion. It’s known as stimming or self stimulation. Well, it’s basically like space dancing in away or you know, it can be!

Cory:               10:33         
Going back to the retreat for autistic individuals, Steve shares a particular memory that really stood out to him.

Steve Silberman:    10:40         
The most beautiful thing I saw at Autreat was this couple who had been married at the previous Autreat. They were both artistic and they were holding hands and rocking back and forth and stimming together and it was just a beautiful thing to watch.

Cory:               11:05         
Autism can also have a Grateful Dead vibe with the mindsets, morals and beliefs.

Steve Silberman:    11:10         
For one thing, I’ve noticed that a lot of autistic people are very passionate about social justice and they’re very disturbed if they think people are lying or being hypocritical or treating people unfairly. Now I’m speaking in very broad general terms. There’s so autistic people who lie themselves, you know all the time, but not very many of them and I don’t think it’s any accident that two of the leaders of the global youth movement in Europe to mobilize against climate change, two of them are autistic teenagers.

Cory:               11:50         
Steve said autism is a developmental condition that can express itself in a very wide variety of ways. Some autistic people have difficulty reading body language, tone of voice or facial expressions.

Steve Silberman:    12:03         
The classic way to describe autism is to say that people who have it, have difficulty in reciprocal social interactions. I would say that that’s generally true. Some autistic people cannot speak but can communicate by typing on a keyboard. Other autistic people are extremely chatty and have amazing vocabulary.

Cory:               12:24         
There are all kinds of complexities to autism and that’s why it is being referred to as a wide spectrum.

Steve Silberman:    12:30         
Some autistic people are geniuses, other autistic people are intellectually disabled. Some autistic people can get by with not much daily support. Others require like 24/7 constant care. So it’s a very, very broad spectrum of humanity.

Cory:               13:15         
Because autism is classified as a spectrum, attempting to define a diagnosis of autism can be really difficult. However, autism is generally referred to as a syndrome and what that means in medicine is that a bunch of factors occur together and that you can’t take out one factor and still call it a syndrome. Therefore, there are common themes with autistic people.

Steve Silberman:    13:38         
The crucial commonalities to get an autism diagnosis are things like difficulty in social interactions. A lot of autistic people aren’t so comfortable with change. Like particularly if it’s unanticipated. You don’t want to spring a big surprise on your autistic friend. It’s generally better to prepare them, you know, they say repetitive behavior, but I think you could probably accuse most deadheads of having repetitive behavior. You know, a lot of things that don’t seem pathological, you know, that are just human traits get interpreted as pathological once you make them part of a diagnosis.

Cory:               14:19         
To hear more about autism from Steve Silberman in 2015 he gave a Ted Talk, which is available online and has over a million and a half views.

Steve Silberman:    14:28         
If you Google like, “Steve Silberman Ted Autism” it’ll come up and that’s like a 14 minute version of my book.

Cory:               14:46         
Of course. For more information, Steve Silberman’s book is titled “Neurotribes: the Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity.”

Steve Silberman:    14:55         
What you get if you buy Neurotribes is a history of 80 years of society’s changing attitudes towards autism and autistic people. You know, it doesn’t necessarily sound like “beach reading,” you know, but I tried to make it really engaging.

Cory:               15:24         
Autism has a long history of controversy and misinformation. With the help of celebrities and major autism organizations, they gravitated towards this panic about an alleged autism epidemic . . .
Steve Silberman:    15:37          (or so they thought)
Cory:        15:38         
. . . the needs and awareness about autism were brought into the forefront, but in an unfortunate way.

Steve Silberman:    15:43         
The only problem is that it gave them the wrong kind of attention because for instance, if you believe that there’s an autism epidemic among vaccinated children than what you’re not seeing is the huge numbers of autistic adults, some of whom were even born before the MMR vaccine was invented, who are unrecognized and struggling out there in the community with no support. They don’t even have a diagnosis and believe it or not, even though America has been arguing for now, you know more than 20 years about whether or not vaccines cause autism. We still have never even done a national survey of how many autistic people are out there.

Cory:               16:22         
A few years ago the U.K. did a survey to find undiagnosed autistic adults.

Steve Silberman:    16:27         
What he found was that the incidences of autism among adults was exactly the same as the incidence of autism among children. If there was this quote unquote tsunami of autism, which is one of the words that’s constantly used by the Anti-vaccine fearmongers if there was a tsunami of autism, you would expect that the rate would be higher among children, but it was not. And so we still need to do that research in America.

Cory:               16:56         
Steve Silberman, author of NeuroTribes, the Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity.

Steve Silberman:    17:02         
There’s a lot of social context to the changing attitudes towards autism. And that’s what my book is about.