In a Different Key: The Story of Autism

In a Different Key: The Story of Autism - John Donvan, Caren Zucker The best biographies (or histories) are those which transcend the story that is being told. One does not even have to be interested in Autism to appreciate fully what the authors have done with this book. The arc of the story is tied together by how our understanding of the nature of Autism has changed from its early days until today and how complex it is to do science right.

The authors usually tell their history by focusing on particular characters and put them into the context of the time period. The science of the times at first (psychoanlytical theories) blame the moms ('refrigerator moms") or next with the behaviorist use 'cattle prods" or slapping for dealing with the autistic children. The moms (and dads) are some of the real heroes. They realized that the status quo was not acceptable and not effective. Pre-internet days they did what they could and organized and made a difference. Sometimes, we lose sight of the fact how important individuals can be in changing the accepted scientific norms. Kindness, understanding and patience turned out to be more effective strategies.

The labels (the definitions) we give determine how we understand. The authors step the listener through many different ways we thought about Autism and by doing that the listener gets a good understanding of what Autism means. I even understand why the DSM V has dropped the Asperger category and why it's best thought of as part of the Autism Spectrum. The authors are always neutral in their reporting of the facts and let the science speak for itself. They cover in detail why vaccines do not cause Autism, why some people can reasonably think about Autism as neurdiverse (v. neurotypical), and why there is probably no epidemic in the growth of Autism, and how important it was to educate the public about the reality of Autism through all means possible.

The book gives a good perspective on how and why we think about Autism the way we do today, and how science can be fluid but seems to have a self correcting mechanism (albeit sometimes acting at a snails pace) within it, and how individuals do make a difference even when they are not part of the scientific tribe.