In this week’s issue of The New Yorker historian of science Steven Shapin explores the complicated history of autism in his review of John Donvan and Caren Zucker’s new book In a Different Key: The Story of Autism. As Shapin writes,
The history of how autism was discovered, how the term entered the vocabulary of psychological expertise and also of everyday speech, and how its identity has evolved has been told many times. Chloe Silverman’s 2012 book, “Understanding Autism,” is the most sensitive account by an academic historian, and Steve Silberman’s best-selling work “NeuroTribes” (2015) is a deep history of autism, which ends up as a discussion of how we ought to think about it today. Now comes “In a Different Key: The Story of Autism,” by John Donvan and Caren Zucker (Crown). The authors are journalists, and, like many writers on the subject, they have a personal interest in autism. Donvan has a severely autistic brother-in-law. Zucker’s son has autism, and so does a grandson of Robert MacNeil, a former anchor of “PBS NewsHour,” for which Zucker produced a series of programs on the condition. Appropriately, a major focus of the book is on autism in the family and the changing historical role of parents of autistic children. “In a Different Key” is a story about autism as it has passed through largely American institutions, shaped not only by psychiatrists and psychologists but by parents, schools, politicians, and lawyers. It shows how, in turn, the condition acquired a powerful capacity both to change those institutions and to challenge our notions of what is pathological and what is normal.
The full review can be read online here.