In a Different Key: The Story of Autism actually contains 46 short chapters, grouped into “parts.” Since none of these chapters is really long enough for a review, though, I decided to review the book by Parts.
Part 1 contains six short chapters. As a whole, it focuses mostly on the childhood and adolescence of Donald Triplett – Leo Kanner’s “Case 1,” the first child described in his 1943 paper “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact” [pdf]. The authors’ telling of the story is engaging and clear; it makes a quick, entertaining read.
Nonetheless, it reminds me of nothing so much as those mass-market afterschool-special-esque novels that were so popular when I was in elementary and middle school. You may remember these. They had titles like Is My Sister Dying? (spoiler: yes, of kidney failure) and What’s Wrong With Daddy? (spoiler: Alzheimer’s). They were always told from the point of view of a “normal,” “healthy” family member. And while they attempted to shed light on unusual conditions and create empathy in the reader, they always did so by turning the family member with the condition into a spectacle, sideshow, or sob story. The moral was that You, Normal Person, should Feel Bad for These Poor Unfortunates.
Donvan and Zucker’s retelling of Donald Triplett’s early years left a similar taste in my mouth. By autism literature standards, it’s actually not the worst thing I’ve read. There are occasional uses of phrases like “baffling,” “puzzle,” “mystery,” or “for no reason,” but they’re subtle, and they’re clearly intended to reflect the frame of mind of Donald’s parents (whether they limit themselves to this effect is another question). But again, I am reminded that the primary audience for this book is neither autistic people nor people who see autistic people as fundamentally human – and that, consequently, the actual audience for this book is not likely to walk away seeing autistic people as fundamentally human.
Approximately halfway through the six-chapter retelling of Donald’s story, the book diverges into a discussion first of Kanner’s work on “infantile autism,” and then – for the span of about six pages – into speculation on cases of autism that appear in medical and religious literature before a separate concept or diagnosis existed.
I found both of these to be summarily and sloppily written. The research has already been done on both of these topics; the information and resources exist to produce much more clear, organized, and accurate six-page summaries of each topic. Alternately, the story of Donald the authors are telling would have been harmed not at all by simply skipping these two summaries altogether.
Yet the authors chose to give us summaries that read as perfunctory and rushed, and to drop them smack in the middle of Donald’s story, interrupting what was an otherwise solid narrative flow. I’m hoping this was a one-off mistake by either the writers or their editors, and not an indication of their ability to organize the rest of their information.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover one mistake the authors did not make, which was to conflate changeling “folktales” with autism. The book’s surface and mainstream treatment of its topic so far indicates that had the authors gone that route, they would have made the exact same surface and mainstream errors everyone else does – like assuming that changeling stories somehow describe autistic children. The word “changeling” never even appears in Part 1, for which I am grateful. (Perhaps a perfunctory summary is worth something after all!)
What we have, so far, are two authors who are shaping a view of autism as a puzzle, a mystery, a weird Otherness that “we normals” ought to have some sympathy for (the poor dears). This is hardly novel, and it runs the risk of taking us into all kinds of heinous stereotypes. We’ll see where it goes.