Alternate title: “Rain Man Good, Epidemiology Bad.”
Part VIII of In a Different Key introduced me to a term that is new to me: “autism family,” used to describe autism parents and professionals – in other words, non-autistic people with a dog in the fight.
Finding a new autism-related term is surprising to me, given the amount of time I spend on this particular topic. I was familiar with “autism parent” and “autism community,” and particularly with their contrast with “autistic parent” and “autistic community.” But “autism family,” to describe a bunch of people who don’t have autism at all, is a new one for me.
It’s surprising. I wish I could say it was delightful.
Part VIII of In a Different Key also pronounces 1988’s Rain Man to be “the first good film about autism.” The authors base this opinion on the amount of thought that went into making Raymond autistic rather than “merely” a savant (the real-life human on which Raymond was originally based, Kim Peek, has savant abilities but is not autistic). More intention, it’s implied, means a better result.
Certainly, insofar as Rain Man was the first film about an autistic person that did not blame the parents for autism, it was the first “good” film, according to In a Different Key’s persistent criteria for the relatable and good. Sure. But, like the rest of the book, Donvan and Zucker’s review of Rain Man contains a few too many unpacked assumptions to be taken entirely seriously.
Worse, although it’s used to set up the introduction of Temple Grandin as “a real-life celebrity with autism,” Rain Man is not used as a contrast to Temple Grandin as a real-life person with autism (much less an autistic person). Rather, the mode of talking about characters in films is extended to Grandin herself, who is portrayed and discussed more as a character than as an actual person. If the authors spoke to Grandin herself during the writing of this book, any account of that exchange does not appear in this section on Grandin – which leads me to the strong suspicion that they did not, in fact, interview her. If not, that fact puts this book’s ethos on even shakier ground still.
(A blurb from Temple Grandin does appear on the book jacket for In a Different Key. It reads, “In a Different Key transports the reader back to the earlier days of autism. It is essential reading for anyone who is interested in how society treats those who are different.” I don’t know Dr. Grandin well enough to accurately guess her intent here – we’ve never met – but if I had written this, it’d be dripping shade.)
Slotted into the center of this extended meditation on movie portrayals of autism is a discussion of the first nationwide attempts to calculate the prevalence of autism in the population. This section offers a solid first attempt at discussing why autism rates appeared to skyrocket in the early 2000s, the incredible difficulty of actually measuring autism rates in the population, and the wildly disparate data sets and approaches various agencies used to get to their numbers.
It also applauds an “autism parent” for getting the CDC to commit to its first rate suggestion, 1 in 166 (since heavily revised). According to the authors, getting the CDC to announce this number (despite disclaiming it on their website) was essential in getting autism into the eye of the public. Ironically, the authors then turn around and implicitly condemn media reports using the word “epidemic” to describe that number – even though it represented anywhere from a 273% to a 550% “increase” in autism rates, depending on which state you were in and what methods it was using to guess at the number of autistic children in its population. (As far as I can discern from the text, no state attempted to guess at the number of autistic adults.)
The further into In a Different Key I get, the more it reads to me as two separate books mashed haphazardly into one. One of them is a book about the history of parents’ roles in autism – in its diagnosis, treatment, fundraising, and discourse. This book, on its own, is a rhetorical masterpiece, perfectly suited to its audience and presented with pitch-perfect pathos. If I were reading only this book, I’d have very little to say about its rhetorical flaws; I’d be spending most of my review analyzing its concurrently intense rhetorical effects.
But that book isn’t the only book here. The other book, somewhat shorter than the first, is a crabby rebuttal of a collection of haphazard themes: Eric Schopler, Hans Asperger, facilitated communication, movie portrayals of autism. Without having read the part labeled “neurodiversity” yet I’m going to guess that it’s part of the Crabby Book as well, seeing as how pro-neurodiversity activism is not and has never been the brilliant idea of any “autism parent.” If I were reading only this book, I’d have very little to say about it. My entire review would be summed up by this Simpsons still:
Why this book is two separate books, I have no idea. If it were a paper turned in by a pair of my students, I’d assumed they had each written their own paper and then mashed the two together, but I’d like to believe Donvan and Zucker, as established media professionals, know better. The result of this book being two separate books is that neither book is particularly believable. The rhetorical power of the first is decimated by the second, and if the second has a non-yelling-at-cloud point, it’s obscured by the hyperfocus of the first. I’m still rooting for this problem to resolve itself. So far, however, it’s only getting worse.