Nearly seventy-five years ago, Donald Triplett of Forest, Mississippi became the first child diagnosed with autism. This book tells the extraordinary story of the world his diagnosis created. It is a riveting human drama that takes us across continents, and through some of the great social movements of the twentieth century.
The history of autism is, above all, the story of families fighting for a place in the world for their children. It is the story of women like Ruth Sullivan, who rebelled against a medical establishment that blamed “refrigerator mothers” for causing autism; of fathers who pushed scientists to dig harder for treatments; of parents who forced public schools to accept their children. But many others played starring roles too: doctors, like Leo Kanner, who pioneered our understanding of autism; scientists who sparred over how to treat autism; and those with autism, like Temple Grandin and Ari Ne’eman, who explained their inner worlds and championed a philosophy of “neurodiversity.”
This is also a story of fierce controversy—from the question of whether there is truly an autism “epidemic,” and whether vaccines played a part in it, to scandals involving “facilitated communication,” one of many treatments that have proved to be blind alleys. There are dark turns too: we learn about experimenters feeding LSD to children with autism, and shocking them with electricity to change their behavior; and the authors reveal, for the first time, that Hans Asperger, discoverer of the syndrome named after him, may have cooperated with the Nazis in sending disabled children to their deaths.
By turns intimate and panoramic, In a Different Key takes us on a journey from an era when families were shamed and children were condemned to institutions, to one in which a cadre of parents and people with autism push not simply for inclusion, but for a new understanding of autism: as difference rather than disability.