Book review: a new history of autism’s complex evolution may have uncovered Hans Asperger’s wartime secret
In a Different Key focuses on the dark side of autism – with Asperger perhaps revealed as something other than a kindly doctor looking out for his young patients’ best interests
In a Different Key: The Story of Autism
by John Donvan and Caren Zucker
Is autism having a moment? Two new books examining its history, both more than 500 pages long, would certainly seem to indicate that it is. A few months after the publication of Steve Silberman ’s Samuel Johnson prize-winning Neurotribes, another detailed examination of autism’s complex evolution has appeared in bookshops.
In a Different Key: The Story of Autism covers some of the same ground – the debates about defining and diagnosing a condition that still has no clear biological markers, the consequent anxiety about whether autism is actually on the increase and, if so, what could be the causes and what are the best ways to educate and accommodate people on the spectrum over their lifetime.
Like Silberman, the authors, Caren Zucker and John Donvan, are American journalists who have spent many years researching their book. In 2010 they wrote an excellent article in the Atlantic magazine in which they tracked down one of the first children to be diagnosed with autism in 1943. The fascinating life story of Donald Triplett, now in his 80s, bookends In a Different Key.
The authors delve into the dark era of institutionalisation, and present stories of rival American autism charities and their campaigns for schooling, rights and research. The often toxic infighting between charities, educationalists, researchers, parents and activists is examined at exhaustive length. There is a familiar account of the bad science that led to the panic around the MMR vaccine on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as less well-trodden tales of unethical researchers in the 1960s giving huge doses of LSD to autistic children
In a Different Key is very much an evaluation of autism’s history from an English-language perspective, with very little attention to the pioneering work done in northern Europe. There’s also an assumption that all is now well with the treatment of autistic people. They write that the “cruelty and neglect that have marked the history of autism now seem antiquated” – when this is far from the case in much of the world.
In a Different Key tends to chronicle darker moments from the history of autism – the damaging fraud of facilitated communication perpetrated on autistic people who cannot speak, the father who murdered his autistic son because he feared his sexual exhibitionism would lead to institutionalisation. These are grim tales.
Behind the journalistic colour and dramatisation in their descriptions of parents’ meetings and professionals’ breakthroughs, there is a frustrating tendency to hide the authors’ personal opinions on where research should be concentrated and what therapies work.
However, it’s abundantly clear how they view a key figure, Hans Asperger . The Austrian paediatrician is credited with coining the term “autistic” in 1943 – simultaneously with Leo Kanner in the US. Drawing on archival documentary material discovered by an Austrian historian – which is not currently in the public domain for first-hand interpretation – Asperger is presented not as a kindly paediatrician doing his best to protect his autistic child patients by talking up their potential, but as a doctor who was compliant with the Nazi policy of killing its “unproductive” disabled citizens in the name of eugenics.
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In a Different Key details how Asperger’s signature appears on orders to send profoundly disabled children in his care to a Viennese hospital where it was well known that a punitive drug regime would lead to their early death.
Neither Silberman in Neurotribes nor the British autism researcher Adam Feinstein in his A History of Autism (2010) have had access to this wartime archival material and instead judge Asperger very positively on his lifetime’s work advocating and enabling the sympathetic education of autistic children. This new description of Asperger’s actions during the Nazi era is the scoop in Zucker and Donvan’s book and will doubtless lead to much discussion and reassessment, especially when the documentation becomes accessible.
Whether Asperger was a saint or a sinner should not dominate the discourse around autism, which could better concentrate on whether the concept of autism as a single entity has had its day. What is striking in Neurotribes and In a Different Key is how experts have struggled for 70 years to define a condition that is so varied in impact and that can describe both the eccentric, antisocial genius and the mute, self-harming child.