“Unstrange Minds” is an anthropological approach to the questions of autism: Where did autism come from; who came up with the term and under what historical and cultural influences? How do different countries recognise and treat autism, and why do their approaches differ? As Roy Richard Grinker attempts (and succeeds I would say) to answer these questions, he also weaves in personal stories of autism; from his own family life and from other families across the globe.
The first half of the book focuses particularly on the emergence of autism as a condition, and the question of whether there is currently an emerging “epidemic” of autism. (The book is published in 2007, but the answers he provides about the emergence and growth remain as true today). He investigates evidence of autism before it was known as autism, and shows how even today its existence in various countries continues to be often unacknowledged and misunderstood, and the consequences of how different societies approach the diagnosis and existence of autism.
At times I found the descriptions of how my son would have been treated in times gone past, so disturbing that I had to look away from the book and take deep breaths. It has the same emotional impact when I read of how mothers have been held responsible for their children’s autism; speaking aloud all those early doubts and concerns a mother has even today when receiving such a diagnosis for their child. Grinker doesn’t just share these things for shock value though (and there is definitely shock value through-out the book); he carefully explains how those theories and resulting treatments came about.
The second part of the book moves away from the initial questions of origins and epidemic of autism, and shifts more towards stories of different experiences, using in-depth examples from the United States, India, South Korea, and elsewhere. I didn’t find the second half as engaging or informative as the first half (where Grinker had already introduced examples of how other countries respond to autism), but it is the second half which will perform an important and vital function for the parents reading the book who might be looking for hope and guidance for their own autistic child.
This is an important book particularly for people who struggle to comprehend or appreciate the fluidity of diagnostic terms, which is particularly relevant and topical with the DSM-5 diagnostic changes looming. It is also an excellent resource for people trying to understand the changes and growth in autism numbers. I thought I already had a reasonably good grasp of these issues, but this book took my understanding to a new level.
A valuable book in many regards.