In a Different Key and The Hypocrisy of Mainstream Autism Coverage

Last night I attended John Donvan's and Caren Zucker's talk at Stanford University, in which they discussed their "Story of Autism" book In a Different Key and its forthcoming film. I should be clear: I am not impressed by the authors or their book, as I find both hypocritical and disingenuous: belittling autistic people who stand up for the rights of autistic people of all abilities, while lauding parents who are equally unapologetic in fighting for their autistic kids' rights; framing the murder of disabled children as the unforgivable act it is when Nazis do it, but as somehow understandable when "loving" parents do it.

Photo via SF Autism Society's public Twitter feed
[image: In a Different Key co-authors John Donvan and Caren Zucker,
seated and laughing together during yesterday's talk at Stanford.]
Still, I went, because I was hoping Zucker and Donvan had absorbed some community feedback about the messages their book got wrong in 2016, and that maybe now they would have better messages for the audience, and in their film.

No such luck: They doubled down on matters like ABA apologetics, and also on their disdain for autistic self-advocates—who in their opinion aren't really disabled. They even claimed that Steve Silberman's book NeuroTribes, which is also an autism history and which was published a few months before their own book, is more about making self-advocates proud, as opposed to their book which tells the stories of higher-support autistic people. Which is quite the headspin for me, given that an entire chapter of Silberman's book is about ... my son Leo.

I really need to stop being surprised when banner-carriers for mainstream attitudes about autism reject the insights and grievances of autistic people (when they don't support the authors' preconceived notions, at least). Sitting in that audience was not that different from watching Brett Kavanaugh's indignation during his confirmation hearing: Zucker and Donvan also were upset when the people their work harms spoke out, and also invoked their work on behalf of people with disabilities as a Good Character Free Pass. Nor is it surprising that they and their host kept mentioning In a Different Key's Pulitzer nomination: Yep, the mainstream U.S. media gave a high-profile book about autism but excluding self-advocate voices its imprimatur. This is not a shock to anyone who has watched a parallel mainstream media industry shower its highest honors, the Academy Awards, on non-disabled actors who play disabled characters.

The talk wasn't all awful: Caren Zucker made a case for radical inclusion using the example of Donald Triplett, and showed wonderful footage of him living a happy live in an accepting and supportive community. That part was fricking fantastic, and I hope that message dominates the film. I am also glad the movie is covering police mistreatment of autistic people.

And even though I was too upset by all the above to speak during Q and A, autism researcher Dr. Deb Karhson was there—and she asked the authors about how they managed to get access to Asperger's papers when Silberman was asking for them at the same time yet was rebuffed. John Donvan then admitted, for the first time in public, as far as I know, that yes, they did enter into an exclusive agreement with researcher Herwig Czech (who then stonewalled Silberman). Which puts Zucker and Donvan's past behavior—allowing Silberman to be publicly criticized for championing Asperger in NeuroTribes, after In a Different Key was released with publicity emphasizing "the real Asperger story" of complicity in Nazi murders of disabled children—in a very sketchy light.

Anyhow. They suck and I knew that. But now I have more details? Here is my live-tweeted coverage:

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