In a Different Key: The Story of Autism - A Review by Susan O'Bryan

In January of this year, "In a Different Key: The Story of Autism," by John Donvan and Caren Zucker, took the literary world by storm, receiving universal acclaim from major publications and becoming a New York Times bestseller. The book details the history of society's understanding of autism, and the misinformation and controversies surrounding that evolution. It is told from perspectives of civil rights, medical knowledge, and the personal tales of those affected.

This week, we connected with Susan O'Bryan, who reviews literature over a variety of topics. She offered us her insights on this critically-acclaimed foray into the story of autism:



It’s a word that frightens parents, educators and the public alike. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), known for its wide range of symptoms (including Asperger’s), skills and levels of impairment, is usually diagnosed at an early age, but too frequently the complex brain development disorder is misunderstood or overlooked. It’s a mental health challenge that seems to be on the increase, though its origin specifics are still largely unknown.

Authors John Donvan and Caren Zucker hope to erase misconceptions with their book, “In a Different Key: The Story of Autism.” The history of the often-misunderstood condition chronicles the struggles – and successes - of Donald Triplett, born in 1933, in Forest, MS. Nearly 75 years ago, Triplett was the first person to be diagnosed with autism.

Growing up in rural Mississippi, Donald was a child who used people’s names to describe colors, who never cried and who craved sameness, routine and arrangement. Everyone agree he was “not normal.” First institutionalized in 1937 at the Preventorium in Sanatorium, MS, when he was less than 4 years old, Donald’s family took him away in 1938, citing that the place was doing more harm than good.

Beamon and Mary Triplett were among the first to argue for answers, finally finding what they needed in Dr. Leo Kanner, a child psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, MD.  In 1942, with the diagnosis of “infantile autism” in hand, the Tripletts – and so many more to come - were able to begin their fight for their children’s civil rights, including opportunities for education, socialization and more. 

In their comprehensive history of autism (a nearly 700 page book), Donvan and Zucker recognize the achievements of more of those who have brought change. Mothers such as Ruth Sullivan who fought against the idea that unloving “refrigerator mothers” were to blame for their children’s behaviors. Fathers who pushed for scientific research. Lawyers like Tom Gilhool, who took the right to education into the courts. And those with autism, such as Temple Grandin, Pete Gerhardt, Connie and Harvey Lapin, and others who helped shed light on what it means to be autistic.

The authors know of what they speak. Zucker has a son with autism, and Donvan’s wife has a brother profoundly affected by autism. The authors wrote that a 2013 study shows that about 50,000 teens with autism turned 18 that year. “This suggests that we might see half a million people joining the adult autistic population by 2023.” According to Autism Speaks (, autism now affects one in 68 children and is one of the fastest growing developmental disorders in the United States.

As the book points out, progress, slow as it might, has been made. Opportunities never dreamed possible are now available for those with autism. For example, Donald Triplett earned a degree in French from Millsaps College, worked at his family’s bank and regularly plays golf. He’s surrounding by a growing community – locally and worldwide - that understands that autism in itself creates differences, but not always disabilities. 


Susan O'Bryan lives in Clinton, MS, and runs a book review website that examines subjects like family, sports, and life itself through the lens of creative works. As she says: “Family and friends are my passions. Writing and reading are my pleasures. As for the rest, I am still a work in progress.”