Caren Zucker and John Donvan
Nearly 75 years ago, Donald Triplett of Forest, Mississippi became the first child diagnosed with autism. Beginning with his family’s odyssey, In a Different Key tells the extraordinary story of this often misunderstood condition, and of the civil rights battles waged by the families of those who have it. Unfolding over decades, this book is the history of ordinary people determined to secure a place in the world for those with autism—by liberating children from dank institutions, campaigning for their right to go to school, challenging expert opinion on what it means to have autism, and persuading society to accept those who are different. “An invaluable guide for those dealing with autism and an inspiring affirmation of every individual’s contribution to ‘the fabric of humanity,’ ” our reviewer writes in a starred review.


How autism has been transformed over the past century into “a threat that stalk[s] the nation,” giving pause to prospective parents.

ABC correspondent Donvan and ABC TV news producer Zucker have covered autism since 2000, when they created the TV series Echoes of Autism. They begin their chronicle in the mid-1930s, when the parents of Donald Triplett consulted with Leo Kanner, head of the Child Psychiatry Department at Johns Hopkins University. They hoped to find help dealing with their 5-year-old son's strange behavior. At that time, the doctor coined the name autism to describe Donald's affliction. Kanner was fascinated by Donald’s cluster of symptoms, but he considered his condition to be untreatable and recommended placement in an institution. The authors explain that until the 1960s, it was still the norm to place children with epilepsy, cerebral palsy, autism, and other intellectual disabilities in what were, in effect, “human warehouses.” To make matters worse, Kanner, in an opinion seconded by renowned child psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim, attributed the condition to rejection by “refrigerator mothers,” who failed to nurture their children. Parents who sought to keep their children at home were denied community support, and their children could not attend public schools. Ultimately, Donald’s parents rejected Kanner's advice, and he graduated college and became a valued member of his community. In the 1970s, as an offshoot of the civil rights struggle, the rights of the disabled to education and other community services were finally recognized. Today, the definition of autism includes children with minimal language skills and highly verbal college graduates with poor interpersonal skills. How best to serve this diverse community is still hotly debated. In this compelling, well-researched book, the authors weave together the heroic search by parents for treatment and services for their children with the personal stories of a fascinating cast of characters.

An invaluable guide for those dealing with autism and an inspiring affirmation of every individual’s contribution to “the fabric of humanity.”

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