Many autism organizations use the puzzle piece as a logo or symbol. Autism is still a puzzle. The information, the science and the treatments are contradictory and as diverse as the victims of the condition, themselves.
In a Different Key traces a history of autism and tells some of the stories of families and individuals who have to deal with this puzzling syndrome. There are records of people who may have been autistic in Europe but the first person in the United States to be identified with autism is Donald Triplett born in Mississippi in 1933. His parents had the resources to seek help for him when it became obvious he was "different." The aid was scarce and the diagnoses confusing. In 1943, Leo Kanner, studied children with autism and it was recognized and named. His theory, (incorrect and harmful) was that "refrigerator mothers" were at the root of the problem. They were cold and distant; they withheld their love to the detriment of their babies who developed autism. This was his theory although autistic families sometimes had several children, raised by the same mother, who were normal. In 1944 Hans Asperger studied the high functioning person with autism and a syndrome was named for him. 1962 saw the rise of autism associations as parents advocated for their children, children who were given no hope; the advice was to forget them and find an institution. They lobbied for school programs and inclusion; they looked for ways to make life better.
In the medical world, autism was viewed as a psychological condition. Skinner-like conditioning had some success in controlling out-of-control and dangerous behaviours but nothing made the patients "normal". Another school of study arose which thought that there was a physical basis to the problem. Evidence was hard to come by. In pre-MRI days, researchers had to depend on parents to donate the brains of autistic children who had met with fatal accidents. When the field of genetics developed the technology, blood was collected from affected families in hopes of finding genetic markers for autism. So far there is no definitive answer.
The different groups even argued about a name for the condition. At present it is known as the autism spectrum disorder and research shows that autistic people have different "wiring" in their brains. Research has not shown why. Vaccines have definitely been exonerated as the culprit and the work of Andrew Wakefield who tried to show they were the cause has been completely discredited.
There has been much made of the "epidemic" of autism. Even that might be media hype .Autisic children are more visible in our schools and communities because they are more accepted and better understood. Strides have been made in designing educational services suited to them and yet the puzzle remains.
In the final chapter of the book, those autistic adults who prefer to call themselves neurodiverse, have begun to advocate for acceptance as individuals who are not seen as 'abnormal'. They, of course, are those high functioning people who are working at interesting and complicated jobs. They are the "Sheldon Coopers" of autism.
By the end of the book, I had learned many things. Admiration for the parents of autistic children and for the affected people, themselves. Everyday is a struggle. I still am not closer to "the answer" of what causes autism and neither is the medical community. Perhaps, for now, a better understanding will make autism a little easier to deal with. The puzzle has pieces missing and those that there are don't fit to make a tidy picture.
I am an avid reader and like to share some of my "finds" with others.