Manual Autism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

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That feeling, or something like it—the yearning for mastery, or, more cynically, the yearning for the illusion of mastery—has helped make a basically nerdy series from a basically nerdy publishing house impressively popular. Since the Very Short Introductions were launched, in , they have collectively sold eight million copies and been translated into forty-nine languages. Somewhat surprisingly, the books that sell best are those which tackle the most demanding topics: the U.

Supreme Court outperforms Hollywood, and Aristotle outperforms Dinosaurs. As the Oxford project has grown in popularity, it has also increased considerably in size. There is no Very Short Introduction to the Universe—although you can read about Earth, Planets, Stars, Galaxies, and Infinity—but there will almost certainly be one eventually, because, like the universe itself, the series is still expanding. Roughly fifty new titles are published every year; all told, the in-house list of topics to be covered currently runs to one thousand two hundred and fifteen. Nor will matters end there.

In fact, matters will not end anywhere.

Human Evolution: A Very Short Introduction - Bernard Wood

According to Nancy Toff, the American editor of the series, its intended scope is basically limitless. In that sense, the Very Short Introductions have a very long history. Ever since people began writing things down, we have intermittently attempted to write everything down: the nature of the earth and the cosmos, all of prehistory and recorded time, and the political arrangements, cultural productions, and collective wisdom of humankind.

- Autism: A Very Short Introduction by Uta Frith

For at least the past few centuries, pundits have routinely popped up to lament the ostensible death of that dream, invariably at the hands of increased specialization and an explosion in the available information. There has never been a golden era in which our collective knowledge was so modest that it could be compiled in one place—and, if such an era had existed, one wonders exactly how golden it would have been.

In our own time, though, a curious thing has happened. Thanks to technological advances, our ability to store information has just about caught up to our ability to produce it, putting the dream of an omnibus compilation of knowledge in reach for the first time in history.

Arguably, Wikipedia is such a compilation; arguably, so is the Internet itself. That makes the popularity of this series all the more remarkable, especially right now, when truth is hotly contested and expertise is anathema. Yet, in a way, this popularity makes perfect sense. What better time than one in which nothing makes any sense to revive the ancient dream of knowing everything?

It could reasonably be said of Pliny the Elder that he was killed, like a cat, by curiosity. In August of 79 A.

Bad move: he landed barely two miles from Pompeii, the eruption was that of Vesuvius, and within forty-eight hours the poisonous gases it spewed into the atmosphere had killed him. Pliny knew quite a lot about volcanoes—according to him, the ashes from Mt. Etna fell on towns as far as thirty-five miles away, while the hottest lava in the world flowed from a summit in Ethiopia—because he knew quite a lot about everything.

See also Very Short Introduction No. Pliny did not use the term, but Browne did. But more potent forces motivated these subsequent authors as well.


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Across cultures and eras, the two greatest powers behind the production and dissemination of knowledge—which is to say, its control—have been religious authorities and the state, and one or the other typically provided both the financial means and the ideological ends for compendium projects. In the premodern West, where civil authorities showed little interest in—and sometimes considerable antagonism toward—the broad dissemination of knowledge, most encyclopedists were monastic Christians. Unlike Pliny, who wrote for the benefit of his own reputation, plus possibly some praise from the emperor, these later authors bent to their impossible task with the aim of glorifying God.

For them, the natural world was a divine gift, analogous to the Bible; they studied creation in order to draw closer to the Creator. These works had something in common with narrower compendia produced under religious auspices, from medieval bestiaries to lives of the saints to Christian systematics themselves—attempts to organize all the themes, topics, and texts of Christianity into a single coherent work. But they also had something in common with a far older idea, dating back at least to Plato: the great chain of being, a grand interconnected hierarchy within which every part of the natural world has its allotted position.

As interpreted by early monastics, the great chain of being began with God, below which came angels and other creatures of the spirit, followed by humans, followed by other animals, plants, and, at the base, rocks and minerals.

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Centuries of Christian scholars tinkered with this basic structure—adding royalty below God and above the rest of us, for instance, or subdividing angels so that seraphim trumped cherubim—until every imaginable entity had a place of its own. It was intended to secularize as well as to popularize knowledge, and it demonstrated those Enlightenment commitments most radically through its organizational scheme. Like alphabetical order, which effectively democratizes topics by abolishing distinctions based on power and precedent in favor of subjecting them all to the same rule, this new structure had the effect of humbling even the most exalted subjects.

It is not entirely clear where you would situate the Very Short Introductions if you were designing a great chain of reading. They are something like textbooks—in that they provide a basic education on a single subject, are popular among and useful to students, and are largely written by professors—but also something like conventional nonfiction, in that they are meant to be read on their own, without lectures or problem sets.

They are also something like the entries in an encyclopedia, since what they promise, above all else, is brevity and edification; for the same reason, they are something like CliffsNotes, which likewise offer a shortcut to knowledge. Still, the two series share one basic and hopeful vision of humanity: that what someone can teach, anyone can learn.

Leo Kanner in Kanner, who developed the first child psychiatric service at a U. Kanner based his report on direct observation, and much of what he set down has stood the test of time. He vividly depicted the essential features of autism, all of which are echoed in current-day diagnostic manuals. It is interesting to note that, just as in Kanner's study, the rate of autism in males continues to be much higher than the rate in females.

Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician, was working at nearly the same time as Kanner with a similar group of children on the other side of the Atlantic. A milder form of autism, Asperger syndrome, was named after him.

Autism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

As the word "spectrum" suggests, people with autism spectrum disorder ASD may have challenges that run the gamut from mild to severe, with different levels of ability and disability. Someone may have no functional speech, or may have a rich vocabulary. He or she may be intellectually disabled or have an average or above average IQ. He may be socially withdrawn or may be socially active, although in an oblivious, eccentric way.

He may be fixated on lining up toys in a certain order, or have an encyclopedic knowledge of animals or another favorite topic. To learn about the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder, please see our About Autism section. Parents of children who have just been diagnosed with ASD often feel both devastated and panicked.

Find out what happiness is and how to pursue it from the 'Very Short Introductions' ebook series

In our Newly Diagnosed section, we address some of the issues most on the minds of parents in this situation. When a child is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, families face the next challenge: choosing the right treatments and therapies for their child. What are these treatments and therapies? How much do we know about them? How can a family best evaluate whether a treatment is working for their child?

In our Autism Treatments section, we explore current autism treatments, the evidence behind them, and what we are learning from the experience of individuals and families who have tried them. Children with autism spectrum disorder may exhibit many behaviors their family, teachers and others find challenging.

Frith, Uta

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