About this book: (from the publisher) Nearly seventy-five years ago, Donald Triplett of Forest, Mississippi, became the first child diagnosed with autism. Beginning with his family’s odyssey, In a Different Key tells the extraordinary story of this often misunderstood condition, and of the civil rights battles waged by the families of those who have it. Unfolding over decades, it is a beautifully rendered history of ordinary people determined to secure a place in the world for those with autism—by liberating children from dank institutions, campaigning for their right to go to school, challenging expert opinion on what it means to have autism, and persuading society to accept those who are different.
It is the story of women like Ruth Sullivan, who rebelled against a medical establishment that blamed cold and rejecting “refrigerator mothers” for causing autism; and of fathers who pushed scientists to dig harder for treatments. Many others played starring roles too: doctors like Leo Kanner, who pioneered our understanding of autism; lawyers like Tom Gilhool, who took the families’ battle for education to the courtroom; scientists who sparred over how to treat autism; and those with autism, like Temple Grandin, Alex Plank, and Ari Ne’eman, who explained their inner worlds and championed the philosophy of neurodiversity.
This is also a story of fierce controversies—from the question of whether there is truly an autism “epidemic,” and whether vaccines played a part in it; to scandals involving “facilitated communication,” one of many treatments that have proved to be blind alleys; to stark disagreements about whether scientists should pursue a cure for autism. There are dark turns too: we learn about experimenters feeding LSD to children with autism, or shocking them with electricity to change their behavior; and the authors reveal compelling evidence that Hans Asperger, discoverer of the syndrome named after him, participated in the Nazi program that consigned disabled children to death.
By turns intimate and panoramic, In a Different Key takes us on a journey from an era when families were shamed and children were condemned to institutions to one in which a cadre of people with autism push not simply for inclusion, but for a new understanding of autism: as difference rather than disability.
Caren Zucker is a Peabody Award-winning television news journalist, a twenty-five-year veteran of ABC News, and a producer and co-writer of the six-part PBS series Autism Now. Find her on Twitter at @caren_zucker.
Genre: Non-fiction/Politics & Social Sciences/Psychology/Health/History
[Tweet “Autism’s story told with crystal clarity & compassion @JohnDonvan @Caren_Zucker @BlogForBooks”]
Reflection: The first thing you need to know about this book is that it’s huge. At over 600 pages, it’s by far the fattest tome I’ve read in years, maybe since my college days. I didn’t know this when I said yes to reading it–not that it would have changed my mind. I wanted to read this book, for the same reason you’ll want to: because autism is a here-and-now topic that affects each and every one of us to large or small degree. I’m confident there’s not one among you who is not touched by autism in some way, whether is because someone in your family is affected by it, or you know someone who is. Myself, I have a brother with autism, plus several dear friends who have children with autism, and we are all in the trenches. So, the chance to understand something of autism’s story? Yes, please. I’m in.
I did wonder, at first, whether all of these pages were necessary. Because of its size, it’s not the kind of book you can casually slip into your purse for pulling out while waiting for your dental appointment. But as soon as I began to read I realized: yes, these pages are necessary, every single one of them. There is no wasted word here, no throwaway anecdote. And altogether? Powerful. Informing. Fascinating. The size of In a Different Key makes it intimidating, but it is actually completely accessible.
Is it for the casual reader? No, despite its accessibility, probably not, but I would put it as recommended reading for anyone intimately affected by the condition. It is well-paced and meticulously researched with an eye not only for detail but for the thread of *story* woven throughout its relatively brief history (or, at least, of having a name attached to it). The authors pull no punches but tell it like it is, without embellishment yet without flinching at the more repugnant sequences. Still, there is beauty and hope in this tale too.
In the hands of award-winning correspondents Donvan and Zucker, autism’s story is masterfully told here. The authors sweep from overarching to minute, varying broad strokes with the finest of details. They delve into eugenics (including some of its surprising supporters, like Theadore Roosevelt and Robert F. Kennedy), the blame game, the vaccine debate, as well as controversies around schools and institutions. The end result is an examination of a still-largely misunderstood condition, even among we who are closest to it, which has the potential of opening both minds and hearts.
Thanks to Blogging for Books for providing me a free copy to review. All opinions are mine.