AutAc Reads IADK, Part 5: Parts V and VI

Part Zero, Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four

I’m combining my review of Parts V and VI of Donvan and Zucker’s In a Different Key because, frankly, there’s not a lot to say about Part V that hasn’t already been said about the rest of the book.

The focus moves to autism research in England in the mid-twentieth century, which is presented as more humane than research in the United States during the same time period – not because English researchers were refraining from shocking, hitting, or starving their autistic child patients, but because they were looking for a neurological or genetic basis for autism rather than blaming the parents.

Uta Frith and Simon Baron-Cohen make an appearance, but everything done on Theory of Mind since Baron-Cohen, Frith, and Leslie’s 30-year-old paper on the topic is disposed of in a single clause: “The validity of the ‘Theory of Mind’ theory of autism would be debated for years….”  Okay, but given that ToM has been and remains one of the biggest theoretical battlegrounds in autism, maybe don’t dismiss it in fifteen words?

Part VI introduces us to Lorna Wing, who despite her long-running career and fond remembrance by at least a few actually autistic people, is presented to us as a crusading “autism mother,” not an accomplished researcher.  Without a trace of self-awareness, the authors also lament the difficulties Wing faced in being taken seriously as a psychiatrist studying autism, given that she was (a) a woman, (2) a mother, and (iii) a mother of an autistic child.

Through the introduction of Wing, we’re also, finally, introduced to Hans Asperger.  Steve Silberman’s history of Asperger’s work in Neurotribes is so much more detailed, researched, and nuanced that it’s not even worth reading the same topic in In a Different Key – except perhaps to marvel at how Donvan and Zucker persist in awarding the “discovery” of autism to Leo Kanner in spite of Silberman’s clear evidence to the contrary.

However, there is one moment in the section on Asperger and his work that is absolutely rage-inducing.  Describing how Asperger frequently found his patients to be bullied while at school, Donvan and Zucker manage to blame the children for their own bullying – by painting them as sociopaths.  In a single paragraph, the authors describe Asperger’s patients (who were all autistic) with terms like “unruly,” “alienation,” “malevolent,” “combative,” and “inveterate liar.”  In the very next paragraph, they write, “This sorry cycle of antisocial tendencies…grew out of specific traits Asperger ascribed to the boys.”

In other words, kids with “classical” autism are tragedies and burdens to their parents; kids with “Asperger’s syndrome” are little sociopaths.

The final section of Part V is devoted entirely to the lurid – and, the authors indicate, ultimately unanswerable – question of whether Hans Asperger was a Nazi or a Nazi sympathizer.  It’s difficult to determine what this chapter is doing in the book at all.  It has nothing to do with the book’s heroes, who are “autism parents,” or the book’s audience, who are also “autism parents.”  Either it exists to connect the Asperger syndrome diagnosis, specifically, to Nazism (why?), or it exists to connect autism as a whole to Nazism, as if Donvan and Zucker have not given us enough reasons to dislike, mistrust, and fear their version of “autism” already.

Apart from the oddly-placed Nazi chapter, however, not much has changed.  The real victims of autism, according to In a Different Key, are still the parents.  The real heroes of “the story of autism” are still the parents as well.  When no clear parental sympathies can be evoked, the storytelling falls flat or is skimmed over altogether.  No autistic person has yet made an appearance as an actual human being with feelings, intentions, or motivation.  It would be more appropriately subtitled The Story of Autism Parents – which might actually have produced a better book in terms of focus.