The Sunday Magazine·The Sunday Edition

The story of autism

Laura's guests are John Donvan and Caren Zucker, co-authors of a new book, "In a Different Key: The Story of Autism."
Donald Triplett (centre) now 83 years old, was the first child diagnosed with autism, with Caren Zucker and John Donvan, authors of "In a Different Key: The Story of Autism." (Penguin Random House)

You don't have to look too far back to see how deplorably misunderstood autism has been. In the 1940's it was believed that children's autism was caused by "refrigerator mothers". A 1948 Time magazine article described these children as "diaper-aged schizoids" and blamed parents - especially mothers --  for being undemonstrative and distant.

This seems laughable - and cruel - now, but so little was known about autism that misperceptions flourished.

Children often paid the price. They were described as "pathetic patients", idiots, or worse -- and they were exiled to institutions for the mentally retarded or the insane. 

All of which is brilliantly documented in a new book by the award-winning journalists John Donvan and Caren Zucker, co-authors of In a Different Key: The Story of Autism.


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