Part III of John Donvan and Caren Zucker’s In a Different Key is about institutions.
The good news is that the book does not overtly praise, empathize with, or support institutions or the institutionalization of autistic people. The bad news is that the book doesn’t overly condemn them, either.
The authors tell the stories of several autistic people who spent all or nearly all of their lives in institutions. In telling this story, they also provide a background of mental institutions in the twentieth century – one that doesn’t mind giving us the more gruesome, lurid, or unpleasant details. As with previous chapters, the authors do a masterful job of twisting our heartstrings with these, especially if the “we” in question happen to be the parents of a child whom, a few short decades ago, we might have consigned to one of these places.
The authors seem to condemn the worst of the institutional abuses of the previous century. Of course they do. Condemning things like icepick lobotomies and tying children to beds is shooting fish in a barrel. (Note, though, the relative lack of condemnation of electrical shocks used as ABA aversives that will appear in the next chapter.) What they fail to do, however, is to point out the many ways in which autistic people are still institutionalized – or to talk about the many proposed or progressing projects to re-institutionalize us.
This problem is one that permeates the book so far. For a tome whose subtitle is The Story of Autism, the authors make few or no attempts whatsover to trace twentieth-century approaches to autism to the present day. They do no critical thinking about autism’s “past” at all. At best this seems to be a result of their audience focus: parents today, operating in a somewhat different world, would greatly like to hear that the mistakes of the “past” cannot be repeated, that we have learned our lesson, that we are better and more humane toward autistic children (excuse me, “children with autism”) now. Of course they would. Very few parents want to hear that their best option is to abuse, neglect, or abandon their child.
But. By failing to connect autism’s past to its present by pointing out that the worst abuses of the past sixty years are still with us today, the authors do parents a huge disservice. They give parents a way to feel better about parenting a child with autism, but they give parents no help whatsoever in actually doing that work. Instead of thoughtful examination of the terrain, the book offers a pablum disguised as one. It’s okay, parents. We used to be mean to kids with autism, but we know better now. Sure, we’re still doing many of the same things we always did, but at least now we’re doing them for your kids’ own good.
Nonsense. We were always doing these things “for your kids’ own good.” And they have never been good.
Let’s be clear: this book’s goal is to help parents feel better about the lemons labeled “autism” that life has handed the parent. It does not exist to help anyone better understand, empathize with, or support autistic people. And it’s a good thing that it doesn’t, because in many ways, it does the exact opposite.