Book reviews – July 2016

A selection from the latest issue.

How far we have come
In a Different Key: The Story of Autism
John Donvan & Caren Zucker

John Donvan and Caren Zucker, award-winning journalists, have written a fastidious, historical account of autism that will appeal to the lay person and professional alike. In a Different Key presents narrative accounts of individuals’ experiences of autism. The book commences in the 1930s with a child called Donald Triplett whose parents sought answers to his atypical presentation, which resulted in a seminal meeting in Baltimore, with Leo Kanner. Kanner later identified Donald as Case 1, and thus starts the history of how autism emerged as the developmental condition that Kanner called a ‘sample of serendipity’.

There is no stone left unturned in this book. Accounts of the underbelly of autism that include the historical contexts of Bruno Bettelheim’s ‘mother-blaming theory’, the unveiling of Kanner’s Nazi background, the impact of Wakefield’s MMR research, as well as the litany of atrocious conditions that individuals with autism experienced in residential settings in the United States,
are also narrated.

We are also introduced to individuals who advocated for the rights of those with autism and who battled to ensure appropriate access to education for children. These individuals include Tom Gilhool, a lawyer who led the flight in the courts. Accounts of parents’ experiences of raising a child with autism weave a thread through this book. There is the harrowing story of a father who killed his son in desperation, and the uplifting stories of Temple Grandin, Alex Plank and Ari Ne’eman, whose families embraced their difference.

The book also presents the roles played by stalwarts in autism research in the UK. The story of the groundbreaking first epidemiological study of South African Victor Lotter, who attempted to count prevalence rates in the UK, is told. However, the legacies of research that were carried out, and that continue to be pioneering, including that of Lorna Wing, Uta Frith and Simon Baron-Cohen to name a few, are deserving of greater mention and further analysis than this book provides.

For anyone interested in autism, this is an essential read as it reminds readers of the grim realities that were faced by individuals with autism in the past, and acknowledges the sacrifices that were made by those to progress the rights of individuals with autism. The book ends with the story of Donald’s 80th birthday, surrounded by many friends in his local community, who embraced his difference and allowed him to thrive in an inclusive setting. There are teary moments also, particularly the story about Archie Casto who spent his life in a residential setting only to be released at 74 years of age and who saw the ocean, for the first time, at 81. Archie’s account is a stark reminder of the harrowing treatment individuals faced but, despite the odds, managed to have some quality of life in their twilight years. Any reader of this book would appreciate how far we have come in embracing and supporting our neurodiverse population.

Crown Publishers; 2016;
Hb £32.99

Reviewed by Paula Prendeville, a Chartered Psychologist who teaches on the professional course at the University College Dublin. She also works as an educational psychologist in the Brothers of Charity, a service for children with autism in Cork, Ireland. She is a Visiting Scholar at Georgetown University, Washington DC.


So what shall we do today? And why it matters
Academic Diary
Les Back

Readers can forget the academic diary notion. The subtitle – Or Why Higher Education Still Matters – is more important. Les Back’s book contains over 50 short page commentaries on topics relevant to higher education today. The diary device may be useful for some topics, but it is not important and it seems odd to start with graduation. I have never met Les Back, and I am not sure that I would want to. With one stroke he could probably demolish any views that I might have on higher education. Actually this is unfair – we would probably both have a fascinating discussion as we have been in higher education for more years than we would care to remember. Back’s book is a powerful criticism of modern university life, but there are sometimes gentler words about its aims, its staff, its students, and even its administrators!

Written in three parts (to match the three academic terms), there are commentaries on issues such as preparing for open days and welcome weeks, the new year’s honours list, public libraries, prison education, student fees, the social etiquette of conferencing, academic writing, the viva, the value of personal notebooks, Twitter, and the double-think of open access, to name but a dozen of the 52 entries.

Mixed in with daily vignettes are insightful comments on the contributions of key figures: Stuart Hall, Richard Hoggart, John Berger, Primo Levy, Zygmunt Bauman, Vic Seidler, etc., as well as those of other less well-known authors, and students. Back concludes with a section on how the book came to be written and a useful set of tips, leads and follow-ups. An author index might have been helpful here.

This Academic Diary is the first book to be published by Goldsmiths Press – a new venture at Goldsmiths University. It is good to see a new university press in this time of austerity. If all its books are like this one it will do well.

Goldsmiths Press; 2016; Pb.£9.99
Reviewed by James Hartley who is Emeritus Professor of Psychology, Keele


Adding it to my reading list
The Psychology Research Companion
Jessica S. Horst

The Psychology Research Companion is just what I’ve been looking for to support my research methods skills teaching for master’s students. This book goes beyond the usual textbook research methods textbooks by outlining and clearly explaining the skills that researchers need in order to succeed in research, such as: collaboration, time management, data organisation, managing IT, presentation and writing tips. The advice provided goes beyond the generic and is specific to the research process. For example, advice on how to get an email answered and using mail merge as part of the participant recruitment provides a level of detail often missing in standard texts. In another example, in the section on Excel, Jessica provides many tips for simple checks for data, such as for checking whether values are above or below a certain cut-off count: IF(D2:D21, “>10”).

There is an abundance of excellent advice on organising files and folders. I often spend a lot of time with project students unpicking a tangle of files types all labelled ‘dissertation’, some of which are chapters, some are questionnaires, some are stimuli information, other files are data, others are raw data. There is a whole chapter called ‘all in a day’s work’ devoted to organising data and information from storing journal articles to tracking participants and managing their data, all of which is invaluable for students managing their research projects.

Another important feature of the book is that these skills are explicitly shown how they are transferrable to other forms of employment. If ‘employability’ is a term you hear in your teaching environment, this book fits the bill by translating the research skills learned from psychology degrees into many employment competencies expected from employers.

I give students advice similar to that outlined in this book on a daily basis. I am now able to offer a page reference in this book for students to follow up. I will be adding this book to my reading list for my students as part of their professional skills development within their research methods training.

Routledge; 2016; Pb £19.99
Reviewed by Laura Biggart who is a Lecturer in Psychology in the School of Psychology, University of East Anglia, Norwich


Full of facts
The Science Inside the Child: The Story of What Happens When We’re Growing Up
Sara Meadow

When it comes to children, I am a bit of a brain geek. Working out how children think and what wires their brains together is what fires me up in the morning. So this book ought to have been my ideal gift.

And it is a truly admirable book. Sara Meadows sets out to summarise everything that science currently tells us about how children develop. Encyclopaedic in scope, each chapter examines the science of children from a different angle – from genetics to psychoneuroendocrinology to epidemiology and beyond.A commitment to scientific method runs throughout this book and Meadows’ rigorous examination of the evidence base is welcome in a field where so many so-called ‘parenting experts’ base theories of bringing up children on anecdote and subjective experience.

But all that science makes a tough read. Meadows is clear from the outset that this is not a parenting manual and explicitly sets out not to translate the science into policy recommendations or practical advice. But the lack of interpretation left me constantly wondering ‘And…? So what? How do I apply this?’

The result is a book packed full of facts in epic taster chapters on neuroscience, evolution and psychology, which I can see myself referring back to for memory refreshers and starting points, but in which there is simply too much science and not enough story.

Routledge; 2016; Pb £19.99
Reviewed by Anita Cleare who is a parenting writer, speaker and coach

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