When people say, “everybody loves a mystery,” they are almost always talking about fiction, where what is called a mystery is usually a mechanism of solution. There are happy elements to non-fiction mysteries, too, especially when they chronicle the magnetism the unknown has for the curious, the ambitious, the dogged, the original, who are further ennobled by their quest for an answer.
Mysteries which do not end with a solution are less congenial. An unsolved mystery not only attracts seekers, it radiates anxiety, fear, often rage at even the temporarily unknowable, especially when the menace our lack of knowledge or understanding is no abstraction, but real, present human pain, loss and often worst, isolation.
Perhaps the worst thing you can say about autism is that is a mystery. More than 100 years after a Swiss psychiatrist used the term autistic to describe the thought patterns of schizophrenics; more than 70 years after an American child psychiatrist used the same word in describing a small group of children, whose behaviors he had been studying, the word is in everyday use, but what it means, psychiatrically, medically, physiologically, and in its impact on everyday life is still mysterious.
All those years, of ever-increasing numbers and ever-improving quality of attempts to solve the many mysteries of autism, what might trigger it, what physical, psychological or genetic structures might foster it, how its effects might be alleviated, or channeled in positive directions; how autistic people might be enabled to make better lives, make up a great story, and our guest today, an old friend and colleague, ABC News Correspondent John Donvan, and his collaborator, award-winning television producer Caren Zucker tell that story beautifully in their new, and already best-selling book “In a Different Key: The Story Of Autism”.
Theirs is not a mystery story that leads to a satisfying solution, although John and Caren do describe the heroic work of medical and psychological practitioners and scientific researchers to fill in the many blanks and radically expand and clarify what we do now know about autism.
But they also describe not just the incompleteness of our knowledge, but the often vicious and wounding conflicts among genuinely well-meaning people, caused by disagreements about theories of causality and remediation of autism, and practices used in the treatment of people who have it.
“In A Different Key” is more than a mystery story, and if the pain of incomplete understanding permeates the book, so does a story arc of real triumph, the story of how American parents of autistic children succeeded in imposing on almost everyone else in our society awareness that autism exists, that it occurs in many families they know, and that awareness has 2 imperatives of its own, to solve the mystery and better understand the condition, and to treat autistic people, as John Donvan and Caren Zucker say in the next to last sentence of their book, as “one of us.”
Autism is still a mystery, but it is first, last and always, a human mystery.