in-aThe book at hand is not written from a Christian perspective but from purely a historical one. Why then am I talking about it on a blog dedicated to Christian literature? A few reasons. Firstly our past is important. If we truly are to avoid going in an erroneous direction, knowing our past definitely is key. But second, because the church has not always set a good example in her thinking and acting about autism; many times the church has not been a light in the darkness but simply shared the darkness with the world.

Dealing with the tragic history of autism and its poor track record, In a Different Key: The Story of Autism transports us back into time, a time when autism was highly misunderstood. The two authors, John Donvan and Caren Zucker, skillfully record in readable fashion the many atrocities that those suffering from autism had to endure up until recent. Many times they were viewed as lepers, test subjects, or as those oddities or “freaks” at a carnival of which the public comes to gawk at.

At one point one Benjamin Spock is mentioned, a bestseller of a 1946 book which taught child care from his perspective. In this book (a greatly received classic in its day) Spock informs mothers of autistic babies of the need to place their in an institution, and the sooner the better. “Then the parents will not become too wrapped up in a child who will never develop very far, and they will have more attention to give to their children who need it” said Spock (p. 16) who ironically titled his book The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. Spock even advised that the separation between mother and child “be done right after birth” (p. 16).

The book reveals the honor-shame culture of that period which made taking care of a child with autism a great embarrassment-a few steps down the “honor” ladder. Those who sent their children to an institution would never bring this up to others, that child being swept under the rug and out of any later discussion. “They had sent away their children in secret, and in time, the children themselves became secrets, never to be spoken of again” (p. 17).

“The higher a family stood on a social ladder, the more sense it made to send a child away” (p. 17).

Fast-forward to the 1970s and you discover that the attitude towards autism did not improve as public schools had and utilized the right to refuse to open its doors to those they deemed “ineducable” (p. 167). The authors tell the story of one woman who searched high and low for a school that would accept her autistic son. Finally finding a private school receptive to autistic children, she also found a program for her son. Unfortunately, it proved to do more harm than good as her son Shawn “was slapped and had diluted mustard squirted into his face” (p. 169), “punishments the researchers used to change [his] behavior” (p. 168). All of this, mind you,  was sanctioned by experts.

Who Is “In A Different Key” For?

The content of the book is very tragic indeed, but our history is of high importance no matter how messy it may be. The book being very lengthy (as is expected of a history book that’s thorough), the readability definitely is a nice factor. I would recommend this book to anyone who, like me, has zero or limited exposure to the horrid history of autism, the tale many times forgotten of how vulnerable human beings were long regarded as lepers and burdens to society, stripped of any humanity. The message of Christ stands contra such dehumanizing (dare I say demonic) ways of thinking about fellow image bearers.

*I received my copy from Blogging For Books in exchange for an honest review

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