With Autism Acceptance Month around the corner, a new documentary about the condition has released during the Sonoma International Film Festival called In a Different Key. Based on the book of the same name by John Donvan and Caren Zucker (who also produce and direct the movie), the film does a better job of empathizing with autistic people compared to its paperback counterpart, yet still misses the mark.
A review of the book reveals that it tells a similar story to NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman by detailing the history of autism and highlighting the same characters and events. However, IADK is darker and focuses more on the accomplishments of parents than autistic people themselves. In addition, there’s a part in the book where the authors sympathize with a father who murdered his autistic son, Dougie Gibson. Thankfully, the film never mentions this tragic event or expresses sympathy for murderers.
The most reoccurring character of the film is Donald Triplett, who was the first child to be diagnosed as autistic by Dr. Leo Kanner in 1943. They repeatedly state that he’s the first child to ever be diagnosed, but that is untrue, as Hans Asperger discovered the condition, calling it “autistic psychopathy” in 1938 while giving a lecture about autistic children to Nazis in Vienna. Perhaps stating that Triplett was the first one to be diagnosed in the United States would have been more accurate. If you want to go back even further than Asperger, J. Langdon Down, who discovered Down syndrome, had also observed children that would be considered autistic today back in 1887.
The film is honest in portraying the way that autistic people are mistreated in institutions and by police, which is a redeeming factor. Zucker also states how early messages about autism were bleak and dark, such as testing pain to get attention, while showing a clip of a child in Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). However, they only mention ABA for a quick second, without ever actually naming the practice. The effects of ABA can be incredibly harmful and have been known to cause PTSD to those subjected by it, which would have been a great point for the film to touch upon. But with the book glorifying ABA and its creator, Dr. Ole Ivar Lovaas, it’s a shock they barely touched on the subject at all. She also doesn’t acknowledge the bleak and dark messages about autism being perpetuated in modern times, such as Autism Speaks’ commercial, “I Am Autism.” Since Autism Speaks was a donor for the movie, as listed in the end credits, that could be a good explanation why they never mention that.
The film also uses pathologizing language, such as saying that Triplett is “obsessed with sameness” or “looked through people as if they weren’t there.” In reality, wanting sameness is simply a different way of regulating oneself and would benefit autistic people if it that idea was normalized.
Far too often, IADK tells the perspective of the parents without the input of the autistic person themselves. For example, they touch upon Connie and Harvey Lapin, who fought hard to get autistic children to have the right to go to school in the 1970s. They talk a lot about their son, but they only show him in the present day for a few seconds in the bowling alley at the end of the scene. In Rita Tepper’s case (who is the mother of Alison Singer, co-founder of the Autism Science Foundation and former Vice President of Autism Speaks, who talked about wanting to murder her autistic daughter), they don’t even show her son Steven at all, except for some childhood photos. It’s possible that the son didn’t want to be filmed or the production crew couldn’t get permission, but for a journalistic film like this, it’s customary to explain why they couldn’t film him. Regardless, the movie never addresses why the son’s perspective was never shown. Based on this article, Steven was institutionalized at the infamous Willowbrook State School, so getting his perspective of the damage that was wrought upon him from those experiences would have been a great way to emphasize the effects of abuse of autistic people over the long term and into old age. Sadly, IADK misses that opportunity.
One thing that the film simply accepts is how the boy Sheamus McCarver is exploited by his father, who tweets about his private moments daily, such as needing help in the bathroom or running around naked. It’s disturbing and shows a total disregard of dignity, acting as if Sheamus doesn’t deserve privacy just because he’s autistic. While it is understandable that his father is single and takes care of him without any support, that’s no excuse to talk about your child’s private moments openly for all the world to see. If it’s something you wouldn’t want done to yourself, then you shouldn’t be doing it to disabled people. Sheamus is capable of speaking, so if he develops the ability to access social media and see what his dad writes about him, it’s inevitable that he would become miserable upon seeing his tweets.
Like the book, IADK touches upon the concept of neurodiversity in a rather skewed manner. They interview John Elder Robison, author of Look Me in the Eye and use him as the spokesperson for neurodiversity. Viewers are shown footage of him exclaiming at a graduation ceremony, “With neurodiversity, our word is not a word of disability. It’s a word of empowerment.” While it is true that neurodiversity emphasizes empowerment, it is wrong that it is not a word of disability.
Thanks to an FAQ from the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism, neurodiversity does indeed acknowledge that autism is a disability. However, neurodiversity advocates emphasize that autism itself is not what disables them intrinsically, but rather they are disabled by their environment and the barriers put in place by society (or the Social Model of Disability); some examples are companies being unwilling to hire them, their behaviors being misunderstood by others, or not being taught in a way that makes sense to them. Using Robison’s concept of neurodiversity can give the wrong idea to parents, causing them to distrust the movement itself, as denying that autism is a disability can be damaging.
Speaking of autism as a disability, there is a section touching on high-support needs people, namely Jonah Lutz. The film crew interviews his mother, Amy Lutz, who is the Vice President of the National Council on Severe Autism (an organization who has a history of attacking autistic advocates). She states, “when your neurodiversity restricts your opportunities in the world, that’s not an identity. That’s a pathology.” The problem with this statement is that it acts as if that restriction of opportunities is the autistic person’s fault, while in reality, more doors need to be opened by society for people like Jonah. It may take effort to open those doors, but acknowledging the problem is only half the battle.
The film shows old footage of Jonah at the Kennedy Krieger Institute attacking staff, but not addressing why he attacked them. As a result, Jonah is portrayed as a monster from the footage. Displaying the reasons for his attack would have humanized him more, but the movie misses the chance to do so. But after that, they do show his art skills and how he even does animation of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street using markers, which is not easy.
Lutz also mentions how many high-support needs autistic people are in diapers and hit themselves profusely, which is indeed hard. However, having to wear diapers stems from gastrointestinal (GI) issues, which can cause the person to release bowels involuntarily, and is a physical medical problem. As with the constant hitting, that can often originate from seizures and internal pain, which many autistic people tend to suffer from. Autism itself does not cause those issues, but they are co-occurring conditions that often accompany it. Regardless, those are medical problems that certainly need treatment and are unpleasant for anyone experiencing it.
A praiseworthy attribute about the film is how it shows the disparity of diagnoses in minority communities. Even in the modern day, black and Latinx people are underdiagnosed. It’s worth noting that the underdiagnosis of women, nonbinary and transgender people for autism is not addressed in the film, however. In this section, Stephanie Parks notes an anecdote where a black woman talked about hitting her autistic son in front of clinicians, which prompted them to call CPS on her. However, when a white woman talked about doing the same thing, the clinicians did nothing. This is a common problem in the US which isn’t just isolated to parenting. It’s simply reflective of how black people are treated unfairly compared to whites in general.
A reoccurring message of the film is that autistic people should be embraced by the community around them, as exemplified by Donald Triplett in his hometown of Forest, Mississippi that he spent his whole life in. Many of his childhood friends are interviewed, who’ve always accepted Triplett for who he is and never treated him as different or less than anyone else. That was thanks to his parents, who were wealthy and influential figures in Forest. But one thing Zucker does acknowledge is that you shouldn’t have to have an influential family just to be accepted as an autistic person. She repeatedly states that she wants her son, Mickey, to have the same treatment as Triplett over time. In that sense, anyone watching the film should want that for her son, as well as autistic people in general. Even Jonah is embraced by the salon where he gets his hair cut, being allowed to lay on the floor as he wants or do whatever makes him comfortable. Not only that, but the salon’s patrons are nice to him and nonjudgmental.
Despite the problematic source material that the film originates from, the message of autistic people being embraced by their community is an enduring one and sets a standard that society should follow. What could have made the film better would be telling the audience how they could embrace autistic people instead of just leaving the answer open-ended. This is where the movie could have benefitted from interviewing neurodiversity activists like Ari Ne’eman or Julia Bascom, who aim to make the world more inclusive and accepting of autistics. While IADK has its flaws, the idea of a community embracing autistic people is a difficult one to disagree with.