John Donvan is a correspondent for ABC News, and host and mod­erator of the Intelligence Squared U.S. Debates, which are heard on public radio and by podcast. During his journalism career, in addition to anchoring such broadcasts as ABC’s Nightline, John served as chief White House correspondent, and held multiyear postings in London, Moscow, Jerusalem, and Amman, Jordan. He is the winner of three Emmys and the Overseas Press Club Award. He became interested in autism’s impact on families upon meeting his wife, the physician and medical school professor Ranit Mishori, who grew up in Israel with a brother profoundly affected by autism. John also performs as a live storyteller with the group Story District. He has two children and lives in Washington, DC. (Twitter: @JohnDonvan)

Caren Zucker is a journalist and television producer who has reported on a broad range of subjects both domestically and internationally. As a producer for ABC’s World News and Nightline, working alongside Peter Jennings, Charlie Gibson, and Diane Sawyer, she covered economic summits, presidential campaigns, social trends, and the Olympic Games. Emmy-nominated, she was honored for her part in ABC’s coverage of 9/11 with two of television’s most prestigious prizes, the Peabody and the Alfred L. DuPont awards. Her oldest son Mickey’s autism diagnosis inspired a new direction in her reporting: to bring a better understand­ing of autism’s realities. Zucker and her husband, the NBC Sports execu­tive John McGuinness, have three children and reside in New Jersey. (Twitter: @Caren_Zucker).

As a team, Donvan and Zucker have been collaborating on stories about autism since 2000. At ABC, they created the pioneering series Echoes of Autism, the first regular feature segment in network news devoted to understanding the lives of individuals and families living with autism. Their 2010 article in The Atlantic, “Autism’s First Child,” was shortlisted for the National Magazine Award and appeared in the paperback anthology Best Magazine Writing of 2011. Zucker also pro­duced the series Autism Now for the PBS NewsHour. As two journalists with a personal connection to autism, they aim to inspire acceptance of and support for people on the spectrum by telling their stories with honesty and compassion. In 2016, they received an Emmy for their segment "A Different Kind Boyhood," which bridged their coverage of their work on autism from 2001 to 2016.

In addition to general audience programs,  John and Caren offer a variety of presentations tailored to audience interest:

For autism organizations: a talk that serves to inspire for the work yet to be done, by retelling the battles won by activist organizations over the past half century: from closing down institutions, to opening access to public education, to making society accept and celebrate autistic difference. Recognizing the support needs of adults as the next great challenge, John and Caren share three critical lessons from the past: 1) activism works; 2) unity is crucial; 3) community is everything. 

 For parenting groups: and for those who don’t necessarily know that much about autism, a primer presentation through the universal lens of being a parent. Virtually all of the progress during most of autism’s 75 year history resulted from parents standing up for their own children. Usually, women took the lead, starting in with Mary Triplett, mother of the first child diagnosed. This talk takes seriously the power of parental love, and the question: “What won’t a parent do for a child?”

For academic audiences and healthcare professionals: a focus on the breakthroughs – and not a few blunders – by the earliest professionals working in the field of autism. At issue was a fundamental uncertainty over autism’s core nature (which continues today). This produced insight, but also confounded epidemiological studies, while producing widely divergent theories – including the notorious “Refrigerator Mother” theory – and conflicting treatments attempts, some ethically dubious. The talk also covers how autism evolved from a dead-end career choice for scientists, to one now attracting significant talent and funding. 

For teachers, and other education professionals: this talk recognizes that teachers have the front-line jobs in supporting children with autism, and offers fascinating historical context – such as how education rights were won, and where support tools used by teachers today came from (like ABA), and with what controversies. Also: the forgotten story of the first “time out” -- what it has to do with autism and birds.

For employers interested in creating more autism-friendly workplaces: lessons learned from firms already embarked on this mission (such as Microsoft), made more personal with the work-life story of Donald Triplett, the first person ever diagnosed with autism, who went on to have a career working in his family’s bank. A focus on what people on the spectrum contribute, and how they can best be supported, so that everybody wins. Also: support for employees whose children are on the spectrum.

For journalism schools and professional groups:  John and Caren share what they had to learn about reporting on the lives of people facing challenges due to disability. Choice of language becomes critical, as is empowering individuals to tell their own stories. Showing a variety of excerpts of their own television reporting on autism over 17 years, they discuss the behind-the-scenes nuances, and in some cases, what they might do differently.

In A Different Key

An extraordinary narrative history of autism: the riveting story of parents fighting for their children ’s civil rights; of doctors struggling to define autism; of ingenuity, self-advocacy, and profound social change

-Washington Post, Notable Non-fiction Books in 2016

-WBUR, Best Books of 2016

-Wall Street Journal, Best Books of the Year

In a Different Key tells the extraordinary story of this often misunderstood condition, and of the civil rights battles waged by the families of those who have it.  Unfolding over decades, it is a beautifully rendered history of ordinary people determined to secure a place in the world for those with autism—by liberating children from dank institutions, campaigning for their right to go to school, challenging expert opinion on what it means to have autism, and persuading society to accept those who are different.  By turns intimate and panoramic, In a Different Key takes us on a journey from an era when families were shamed and children were condemned to institutions to one in which a cadre of people with autism push not simply for inclusion, but for a new understanding of autism: as difference rather than disability.

See More
John Donvan & Caren Zucker on "Nightline"

Discussing their reporting on autism, and society's role in embracing those who are "different" by being on the spectrum.


"Caren Zucker and John Donvan are dynamic, entertaining speakers who will open your eyes and tug at your heart as they tell the inspiring story of the first child diagnosed with autism. Their message is one of hope. By looking backwards, they are helping us all look ahead."

Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D.
Director, Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development
President, International Society for Autism Research Duke University Medical Center

"John and Caren are truly remarkable, inspirational and dynamic speakers as well as authors whom have helped advance a national discussion on the history of autism.   Their easy manner but highly professional approach has enabled so many to learn and read about where we have come from within the autism community and challenged us to see where we need to go to advance the well being and dignity of all impacted by autism."

Scott Badesch, National President & CEO, Autism Society of America

"We couldn't have wished for a more articulate or engaging presentation, with empathy at its heart, and a respect for different-ness that touched everyone, not just those who already knew autism."

Anne Stanton, Founder and Executive Director, National Writers Series:

“The Autism Society of North Carolina presented John and Caren on two occasions this past year to keynote its Annual Conference and be the featured speaker at a large fundraising event.  Their talks had such a compelling message and were tailored specifically for the event and the audience.  They are truly master story tellers.  Gripping one moment, humorous the next while always keeping the audience engaged.  I highly recommend them as speakers for virtually any event. I couldn’t be more pleased with their work.”

Tracey Sheriff, CEO, The Autism Society of North Carolina

“John and Caren brought their great comaraderie and professionalism to three presentations during a visit to The Arc of Monroe. Even though I have been in the field for a number of years, I learned something new at each one. In addition to a donor luncheon and a public presentation/book signing, they paid a special visit to one of our writing classes for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including autism.  In that room, there were no disabilities, just writers sharing stories and ideas.  It was a magical moment. I heartily endorse them as speakers.”

Eric R. Scheele, Executive Director, The Arc Foundation of Monroe, Rochester, NY

In A Different Key

“Sweeping in scope but with intimate personal stories, this is a deeply moving book about the history, science, and human drama of autism. It's also something larger: a fascinating exploration of a social movement that grappled with the mysteries of mind, behavior, and the relationship between parents and children."

WALTER ISAACSON, author of The Innovators and Steve Jobs

Donvan and Zucker’s generous yet sharp-eyed portraits of men, women, and children—most of them unknown until now—make it stunningly clear that we all have a stake in the story of autism. We come to understand that we are all wired differently, and that how we treat those who are different than most is a telling measure of who we truly are. This is the kind of history that not only informs but enlarges the spirit.”

SUSAN CAIN, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

“In this long-awaited work, Donvan and Zucker sensitively and accurately portray the emergence of understanding of this thing we now call autism, a story that goes back hundreds of years. They make a compelling case for autistic traits—gift and disability alike—being part of the human condition. In the words of child psychiatry pioneer Leo Kanner, autism was ‘always there,’ even before the diagnosis was invented. In a Different Key also provides a fresh take on the issue of neurodiversity in all its complexity.” 

JOHN ELDER ROBISON, author of Look Me in the Eye and Switched On

“In this absorbing book, John Donvan and Caren Zucker provide a comprehensive history of autism: identifying records that point toward the existence of the condition long before it was named; unpacking the evolution of the diagnosis; chronicling the history of blame attached to it; and narrating its explosion as one of the most common syndromes among children today. Fast-paced and far-reaching, this book contextualizes the arguments that autism is a horrifying epidemic with those that say it is a valuable aspect of human diversity. This is an important missing piece to the conversation about autism; no one trying to make sense of the spectrum should do so without reading this book.”

ANDREW SOLOMON, author of Far from the Tree 

In a Different Key transports the reader back to the earlier days of autism. It is essential reading for anyone who is interested in how society treats those who are different.” 

TEMPLE GRANDIN, author of Thinking in Pictures and The Autistic Brain

In a Different Key is filled with gripping personal histories that powerfully illustrate the mistakes and malpractices in the diagnosis and treatment of autism; the courage and resilience of those who fought for better treatment and deeper understanding; and the sheer variability of people who are given the autism label and too often lumped together as ‘disabled.’ A fascinating and revealing read, even for those with no personal connection to the topic.”

STEPHANIE COONTZ, author of The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap

“Bravo to Donvan and brava to Zucker. Comically/tragically, autism's history is as emotionally dysfunctional—and as beautiful—as it gets. Finally, we all have an exhaustive reckoning."

MICHAEL JOHN CARLEY, founder, GRASP; author of Asperger's From the Inside Out

“Donvan and Zucker delve deep into both the science and the politics of autism across time. They tell the story of the extreme treatments that have been tried, such as administering LSD or electric shocks in the ‘60s, to ‘normalize’ these children. They uncover the tragic ‘mercy killing’ of a teenager with autism by his father, and explore the MMR vaccine-causes-autism theory, named by TIME magazine as top of the list of ‘great science frauds.’ This book will make a remarkable contribution to the history of autism."

SIMON BARON-COHEN, author of The Essential Difference; Director, Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University

“Autism is a shape changer that has continuously resisted being pinned down. This meticulously researched book leads us deeply into the history of autism and brings to life the colourful personalities and conflicting ideas that deepen the fascination of autism.” 

UTA FRITH, Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Development at University College London

“Autism remains one of the great medical mysteries of our time and this is the first book to fully document the decades of efforts by parents, doctors and society to deal with it—so far. For, as the authors say, this is a story that is far from over. In A Different Key is a monumental piece of journalism that promises to be a classic, a comprehensive baseline for evidence only future research can reveal. It is written with clarity and grace, and with heart, because the authors have both lived with autism in their own families.”

ROBERT MACNEIL, former anchor and co-founder of PBS NewsHour

“This one volume captures the textured and sometimes turbulent story of autism in all of its facets: as a scholarly and scientific endeavor, as a political and legal enterprise, as a social movement. Most especially it embeds these developments within stories of people whose lives defined and shaped the course of autism. In a Different Key is authoritative and utterly absorbing.”

JUDITH FAVELL, past president, Developmental Disabilities Division, American Psychological Association

In A Different Key

*** A Wall Street Journal Top Ten Best Nonfiction Book of 2016

*** Washington Post Notable Nonfiction List for 2016

*** A New York Times Bestseller A New York Times Editors' Choice

“Magnificent...Spellbinding—a fable about greed, power and betrayal told through the lens of autism...Chock-full of suspense and hairpin turns...This book does what no other on autism has done: capture all the slippery, bewildering and deceptive aspects...I have been the mother of an autistic son since 1988...I wept and laughed and raged while reading In a Different Key, all the while thinking, Yes! This is my experience, including the raw and dirty parts, but also the wonder and joy.”


“Remarkable… In a Different Key: The Story of Autism tells a riveting tale about how a seemingly rare childhood disorder became a salient fixture in our cultural landscape. It features vivid portraits of people with autism and their devoted parents and recounts dramatic controversies among well-intentioned and occasionally misguided advocates and doctors who have tried to help those with the condition.  These gripping personal stories give the book tremendous narrative drive.”


“The prose is vivid, the tempo rapid and the perspective intimate, as if each character has been filmed with a hand-held camera."


In a Different Key is a story about autism as it has passed through largely American institutions, shaped not only by psychiatrists and psychologists but by parents, schools, politicians, and lawyers. It shows how, in turn, the condition acquired a powerful capacity both to change those institutions and to challenge our notions of what is pathological and what is normal.”


“This is not a how-to guide or a polemic on neurodiversity. The book probes a difficult subject with intelligence and compassion—and makes you think.  The complete absence of hysteria will make it essential reading for many... its insights and quiet wisdom demand our attention, and gratitude.” 


In a Different Key is nothing if not judicious and fair-minded in its approach to a field harried by controversies and enmities from the very start… [the book] is grounded and sensible, which in the contentious world of autism activism constitutes a kind of grace.”


The authors have captured the art of storytelling and the book therefore has a broad appeal, beyond those directly involved or affected by autism… Comprehensive and illuminating… From cover to cover this book stirs up a combination of emotions. Admiration for the parents that took a stand; incredulity at treatments and assumptions; and gratitude to scientists and activists that dedicate their expertise and devote their energy to making people with autism spectrum disorder feel part of a world that appears to fear nonconformity to what is considered normal… You must read this book.”


“A fascinating history of science, treatment, and civil rights."


“A fascinating history of this confounding condition.” 


A fascinating and comprehensive history told from a personal perspective… In a Different Key shares the often debilitating aspects of autism yet shows how those with autism can and do flourish with the right supports and environments, and how their lives, and the lives of their families, are filled with joys and triumphs and fun and irreverence, too.”


Fascinating… A 560-page history of autism sounds intimidating, but fear not. In a Different Key… takes an accessible approach that sheds much light on this human condition... through the human stories of those raising autistic children, of those trying to treat, study and research it and those who are autistic.”


“In this compelling, well-researched book, the authors weave together the heroic search by parents for treatment and services for their children with the personal stories of a fascinating cast of characters. An invaluable guide for those dealing with autism and an inspiring affirmation of every individual’s contribution to 'the fabric of humanity.'” 

KIRKUS (starred)

“Donvan and Zucker’s tremendous study keeps autism at its center while telling an extraordinary tale of social change... Viewed as a whole, the narrative ultimately reveals a transition from an emphasis on treating individual cases to a more society-wide effort for advocacy and inclusion—an effort that this book will do much to advance.” 


In a Different Key is almost as much a history of coping with ignorance and uncertainty as it is a voyage of discovery... It is the great achievement of this book to show how this happened in an exciting and poignant way.” 


Speaker Topics

Activism Autism Journalism

Featured Video

Request Speaker Availability Share this speaker