As new cases of autism have exploded in recent years—some form of the condition affects about one in 110 children today—efforts have multiplied to understand and accommodate the condition in childhood. But children with autism will become adults with autism, some 500,000 of them in this decade alone. What then? Meet Donald Gray Triplett, 77, of Forest, Mississippi. He was the first person ever diagnosed with autism. And his long, happy, surprising life may hold some answers.
According to family lore, Polgar put on his show and then, after taking his final bows, approached his hosts with a proposal: that they let him bring Donald with him on the road, as part of his act.
Donald’s parents were taken aback. “My mother,” recalls Donald’s brother, Oliver, “was not at all interested.” For one, things were finally going well for Donald, after a difficult start in life. “She explained to [Polgar] that he was in school, he had to keep going to classes,” Oliver says. He couldn’t simply drop everything for a run at show business, especially not when he had college in his sights.
But there was also, whether they spoke this aloud to their guest or not, the sheer indignity of what Polgar was proposing. Donald’s being odd, his parents could not undo; his being made an oddity of, they could, and would, prevent. The offer was politely but firmly declined.
What the all-knowing mentalist didn’t know, however, was that Donald, the boy who missed the chance to share his limelight, already owned a place in history. His unusual gifts and deficits had been noted outside Mississippi, and an account of them had been published—one that was destined to be translated and reprinted all over the world, making his name far better-known, in time, than Polgar’s.
His first name, anyway.
Donald was the first child ever diagnosed with autism. Identified in the annals of autism as “Case 1 … Donald T,” he is the initial subject described in a 1943 medical article that announced the discovery of a condition unlike “anything reported so far,” the complex neurological ailment now most often called an autism spectrum disorder, or ASD. At the time, the condition was considered exceedingly rare, limited to Donald and 10 other children—Cases 2 through 11—also cited in that first article.
It’s a question that has yet to grab society’s attention, as the discussion of autism to date has skewed, understandably, toward its impact on childhood. But the stark fact is that an epidemic among children today means an epidemic among adults tomorrow. The statistics are dramatic: within a decade or so, more than 500,000 children diagnosed with autism will enter adulthood. Some of them will have the less severe variants—Asperger’s syndrome or HFA, which stands for “high-functioning autism”—and may be able to live more independent and fulfilling lives. But even that subgroup will require some support, and the needs of those with lower-functioning varieties of autism will be profound and constant.
How we respond to those needs will be shaped in great measure by how we choose to view adults with autism. We can dissociate from them, regarding them as tragically broken persons, and hope we are humane enough to shoulder the burden of meeting their basic needs. This is the view that sees the disabled in general as wards of the community, morally and perhaps legally, and that, in the relatively recent past, often “solved” the “problem” of these disabled adults by warehousing them for life—literally in wards.
The day’s agenda thus far has included morning coffee with friends, a long walk for exercise, a Bonanza rerun on TV, and now, at 4:30, this short drive down Route 80 to get in some golf. “I noticed,” he mentions, “you have a Lafayette County sticker on your car.” He’s broken a long silence with that comment, a reference to the registration decal on the rental we parked in his driveway. His words hang there for a moment, and then he adds: “That means it comes from Lafayette County.” That’s all. Nodding to himself, Donald goes silent again, his focus returning to the road ahead, or tuned to some inner monologue. Given his tendency to close his eyes for long moments when he speaks, this is probably the safest choice.
He parks just short of the front steps of the Forest Country Club, an establishment without pretensions. The one-story red-brick clubhouse fronts onto a well-tended, mostly flat course carved out of the woods. Membership is $100 per family per month, and a round of 18 holes costs $20 on a weekday. On any given day, the roster of players on the fairways includes lawyers and mechanics, bankers and truckers, salesmen and farmers—and Donald. Actually, Donald is there every day, weather permitting. And almost every day, he golfs alone.
Some days, Donald has no choice but to partner with other golfers, when the country club, honoring golf’s traditions as a social game, reserves the entire course for a membership “scramble.” In a scramble, golfers are randomly assigned to teams, which compete for lowest group score by picking the ball in the best position and having everyone on the team play from that spot. During one recent scramble, Donald made the rounds with Lori and Elk and Kenneth and Mary, all of whom seemed to be at least three or four decades younger than he was. But Donald held his own competitively, with his shots often enough the ones used. He also kicked in a passable amount of friendly banter, which was returned in the same spirit, though Donald’s patter tended to get repetitive: “Way to hit that ball, Kenneth!” “Way to hit that ball, Lori!” “Way to hit that ball, Elk!” At times he would entertain variations, marrying his partners’ names with words from his own private vocabulary: “Hey, Elkins the Elk!” “Hey, Mary Cherry!” “Okay, thank you, Kenneth the Senneth!”
At the time, institutionalization was the default option for severe mental illness, which even his mother believed was at the root of Donald’s behavior: she described him in one despairing letter as her “hopelessly insane child.” Being in an institution, however, didn’t help. “It seems,” his Johns Hopkins evaluator later wrote, “he had there his worst phase.” With parental visits limited to twice a month, his predisposition to avoid contact with people broadened to everything else—toys, food, music, movement—to the point where daily he “sat motionless, paying no attention to anything.”
He had not been diagnosed correctly, of course, because the correct diagnosis did not yet exist. Very likely he was not alone in that sense, and there were other children with autism, in other wards in other states, similarly misdiagnosed—perhaps as “feeble-minded,” in the medical parlance of the day, or more likely, because of the strong but isolated intelligence skills many could demonstrate, as having schizophrenia.
DR. PETER GERHARDT waves a credit card in his right hand, animated—as he often is—about the point he’s trying to make. This time, it’s a trick that he guarantees makes it impossible to swipe the card the wrong way. “You can slide it this way, or like this, or stick it in like this”—he jabs straight into the air in front of him, as if into a bank machine—“and if you keep your thumb in this position on the card, you will always swipe it the correct way.”
Closer examination clarifies: the card he is holding is a Visa, and his right thumb completely covers the blue-on-white logo in the lower right corner, the sweet spot that makes the trick work. Keep your thumb there, Gerhardt pronounces, and the magnetic stripe will always line up properly, regardless of the type of card reader.
Gerhardt’s demonstration isn’t intended merely for news-you-can-use convenience. Rather, he’s explaining how using a bank card fits into the bigger picture that has defined his career since he embarked on his doctorate in educational psychology at Rutgers in the early 1980s: the struggle people with autism face to be accepted into a world occupied by “the rest of us.”
BROTHERS: A recent family snapshot of Donald with Oliver (right)
MOST LIKELY, DONALD’S name would never have entered the medical literature had his parents not had both the ambition to seek out the best help for him, and the resources to pay for it. Mary Triplett had been born into the McCravey family, financiers who had founded and still controlled the Bank of Forest. Uncommonly for a woman at that time, particularly in that milieu, she had a college degree. After a doomed romance with a local cotton farmer’s son, whom her family forbade her to marry—he later went on to renown as six-term segregationist U.S. Senator James “Big Jim” Eastland—she instead married the former mayor’s son, an attorney named Oliver Triplett Jr. With a degree from Yale Law School and a private practice located directly opposite the county courthouse, Oliver would later hold the position of Forest town attorney and would be admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States. He was an intense man who had suffered two nervous breakdowns, and who could get so lost in his thoughts that he’d return from walks in town with no recollection of having seen anyone or anything along the way. But as a lawyer, he was considered brilliant, and when he proposed to Mary, her family apparently raised no objections.
Excerpts from Oliver’s letter—the outpourings of a layman, but also a parent—now hold a unique place in the canon of autism studies. Cited for decades and translated into several languages, Oliver’s observations were the first detailed listing of symptoms that are now instantly recognizable to anyone who knows autism. It is not too much to say that the agreed-upon diagnosis of autism—the one being applied today to define an epidemic—was modeled, at least in part, on Donald’s symptoms as described by his father.
Their little boy, Oliver wrote, had almost never cried to be with his mother. He appeared to have withdrawn “into his shell,” to “live within himself,” to be “perfectly oblivious to everything about him.” Entirely uninterested in human beings—including his parents, for whom he displayed “no apparent affection”—he nevertheless had several obsessions, including “a mania for spinning blocks and pans and other round objects.” He was fascinated with numbers, musical notes, pictures of U.S. presidents, and the letters of the alphabet, which he enjoyed reciting in reverse order.
He had, however, been working on a name for this new condition. Pulling together the distinctive symptoms exhibited by Donald and the eight other children—their lack of interest in people, their fascination with objects, their need for sameness, their keenness to be left alone—he wrote Mary: “If there is any name to be applied to the condition of Don and those other children, I have found it best to speak of it as ‘autistic disturbance of affective contact.’”
FOR ALL THE PROGRESS that Donald has made in the decades since—the driving, the golfing—conversation is an art that continues to elude him. He initiates on occasion, but his purpose is generally to elicit a piece of information he needs (“What time is lunch?”) or to make a passing observation (his comment about the sticker on our car). A regular chat, the casual back-and-forth of kicking around an idea, is something he has never experienced.
When asked questions—even questions that invite some elaboration—he responds in a terse, one-way manner, like a man working his way through a questionnaire.
Topic: Donald’s sense of achievement at being able to multiply in his head
“Donald, how does it make you feel that it just comes out of your head?”
“It just comes out.”
“Does it make you feel good?”
“Oh yes, oh yes.”
“Can you describe it?”
“No, I can’t describe it.”
Topic: Donald’s memory of meeting the mentalist Franz Polgar
“Donald, do you remember Franz Polgar?”
“Yes, I do remember Franz Polgar.”
“When did he come?”
“Actually he came twice. He came in 1950 and 1951.”
[Another long lapse.]
“Who was he?”
“He was a hypnotist.”
“Can you tell me what he was like? Was he an old man?”
“He was probably 55 years old. And he’d be 110 if he were living.”
As is clear from these exchanges, Donald’s thinking likes to go to numbers—even when, as in this case, his arithmetic appears faulty—to dates and calculations and constants that order the world concretely and do not require interpretation. He even has a habit of assigning numbers to people he encounters, a sort of internal indexing system. An old acquaintance named Buddy Lovett, who resides one town over, in Morton, Mississippi, told us that Donald had assigned him the number 333 sometime in the late 1950s. Though he had not seen Donald for several years, he urged, with a hint of mischief, “Next time you see him, go ahead: ask him what my number is.”
Topic: The death of his mother, Mary Triplett, who took care of Donald for 52 years
“Donald, when did your mother die?”
“It was 1985. May 1985.”
“Do you remember where you were?”
“I was at the bank. Her doctor had said it was just a matter of time … and I got the word saying that she had passed away with congestive heart failure.”
“Do you remember how you felt?”
“It was rather expected. I wasn’t really downhearted or weeping or anything like that.”
“Were you not downhearted because … ?”
“I just don’t react. Different people react differently to situations like that.”
Asked whether he missed his mother, he replied—questionnaire again—“Yes, I miss her.” He said he also misses his father, whose death in a 1980 car accident he described in a similarly matter-of-fact manner. He recalls that his dad’s accident was a shock and, again, that he didn’t cry.
PETER GERHARDT TELLS the story of his friend Tony, who was 55 years old when he got a crash course in the condolence hug. Tony, diagnosed with autism as an adult, had lived all his life under the same roof as his mother. Then she died.
To Gerhardt, this serves as a parable for interactions between people who have autism and those who don’t: neither party did anything wrong, but neither knew enough to get it right. Tony, a man bright enough to have earned a college degree, simply lacked the instinctive experience—the teachable experience, Gerhardt contends—to tell whether or not a person wants a hug. He was sufficiently self-aware to understand that he was missing vital cues, but he had no idea what they were. He later explained to Gerhardt: “The rules keep changing on me. Every time I think I learn a new rule, you change it on me.”
The answer to this problem, Gerhardt argues, is the right kind of education for the many Tonys out there. At present, he contends, schooling for children with high-functioning levels of autism overemphasizes traditional academic achievement—trying to learn French or the state capitals—at the expense of what someone like Tony really needs, a set of social skills that keep him from making mistakes such as hugging his neighbor the wrong way. These skills—like knowing how to swipe a Visa card—are not generally taught to kids with autism. And once they become adults, the teaching, in all too many cases, stops completely. In general, state-funded education ends the day a person with autism turns 21. Beyond that, there are no legal mandates, and there is very little funding. “It’s like giving someone a wheelchair on a one-month rental,” Gerhardt says, “and at the end of the month, they have to give it back, and walk.”
But there was another side to the equation in the hug incident: the neighbor’s lack of education on the character of autism. Had she been more aware of Tony’s condition, and what it might occasionally entail, she might not have felt so threatened. At the very least, had she understood the situation, she could have simply told Tony that she’d like him to let go, rather than hoping he’d read social cues that were invisible to him.
As it was, the whole situation was quickly defused: Tony’s brother arrived and offered both the neighbor and the police an explanation of Tony’s disability, and she declined to press charges. But, as Gerhardt notes, a little more information on both sides might have prevented this misunderstanding in the first place.
DONALD LIVES ALONE NOW, in the house where his parents raised him. Enshrined in honeysuckle and shaded by several old oaks, a few minutes’ walk from Forest’s faded business district, the house needs some paint and repairs. Several of its rooms—including the dining and living rooms, where his parents welcomed visitors—are dark and musty with disuse. Donald rarely enters that part of the house. The kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom are home enough for him.
Except for once a month, that is, when he walks out the front door and leaves town.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Donald’s life is that he grew up to be an avid traveler. He has been to Germany, Tunisia, Hungary, Dubai, Spain, Portugal, France, Bulgaria, and Colombia—some 36 foreign countries and 28 U.S. states in all, including Egypt three times, Istanbul five times, and Hawaii 17. He’s notched one African safari, several cruises, and innumerable PGA tournaments.
It’s not wanderlust exactly. Most times, he sets six days as his maximum time away, and maintains no contact afterward with people he meets along the way. He makes it a mission to get his own snapshots of places he’s already seen in pictures, and assembles them into albums when he gets home. Then he gets to work planning his next foray, calling the airlines himself for domestic travel, and relying on a travel agent in Jackson when he’s going overseas. He is, in all likelihood, the best-traveled man in Forest, Mississippi.
This is the same man whose favorite pastimes, as a boy, were spinning objects, spinning himself, and rolling nonsense words around in his mouth. At the time, he seemed destined for a cramped, barren adulthood—possibly lived out behind the windows of a state institution. Instead, he learned to golf, to drive, and to circumnavigate the globe—skills he first developed at the respective ages of 23, 27, and 36. In adulthood, Donald continued to branch out.
Autism is a highly individualized condition. The amount of room the brain makes available for growth and adaptation differs, often dramatically, from one person to the next. One can’t presume that duplicating Donald’s circumstances for others with autism would have the effect of duplicating his results.
Still, it’s clear that Donald reached his potential thanks, in large part, to the world he occupied—the world of Forest, Mississippi—and how it decided to respond to the odd child in its midst. Peter Gerhardt speaks of the importance of any community’s “acceptance” of those who have autism. In Forest, it appears, Donald was showered with acceptance, starting with the mother who defied experts to bring him back home, and continuing on to classmates from his childhood and golfing partners today. Donald’s neighbors not only shrug off his oddities, but openly admire his strengths—while taking a protective stance with any outsider whose intentions toward Donald may not have been sufficiently spelled out. On three occasions, while talking with townspeople who know Donald, we were advised, in strikingly similar language each time: “If what you’re doing hurts Don, I know where to find you.” We took the point: in Forest, Donald is “one of us.”
For a time, Donald’s care was literally shifted out into the community. Kanner believed that finding him a living situation in a more rural setting would be conducive to his development. So in 1942, the year he turned 9, Donald went to live with the Lewises, a farming couple who lived about 10 miles from town. His parents saw him frequently in this four-year period, and Kanner himself once traveled to Mississippi to observe the arrangement. He later said he was “amazed at the wisdom of the couple who took care of him.” The Lewises, who were childless, put Donald to work and made him useful. “They managed to give him [suitable] goals,” Kanner wrote in a later report.
They made him use his preoccupation with measurements by having him dig a well and report on its depth … When he kept counting rows of corn over and over, they had him count the rows while plowing them. On my visit, he plowed six long rows; it was remarkable how well he handled the horse and plow and turned the horse around.
Kanner’s final observation on this visit speaks volumes about how Donald was perceived: “He attended a country school where his peculiarities were accepted and where he made good scholastic progress.”
Likewise, during high school, when Donald was again living back home with his parents, it appears his ways were mostly taken in stride. Janelle Brown, who was a few classes behind Donald (and the recipient of Donald Number 1,487), remembers that although he was teased a few times, he was generally regarded as a student who was enviably intelligent, even “brilliant”—again a legacy of his famous multiplication skills and brick-counting act. She recalls his sitting with a notebook and filling page after page with numbers, and her impression, as well as that of others, that they were seeing evidence of a superior mind at work.
It’s clear in all this that with the passage of time, Donald’s focus gradually turned outward. He increasingly came to terms with how his world was shaped, at the same time that his world was adjusting to him.
By 1957, he was a fraternity brother—Lambda Chi Alpha—at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, majoring in French and performing in the men’s a cappella choir. (The choir director, we were told by one member, never used a pitch pipe, because he took any note he needed directly from Donald.)
The Reverend Brister Ware, of the First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, was a fraternity brother and roommate of Donald’s. “He was a dear friend,” Ware says, recalling that he tried in various ways to give Donald a hand up socially, though “it was challenging to integrate him.” While training to be a water-safety instructor, he set out to teach Donald how to swim, “but the coordination was not so good for him.” Undaunted, Ware set another goal: “I thought I would try to open up his personality,” by introducing Donald to what was then a cool verbal affectation making the rounds, a way to pronounce the word yes as “yeeeeeeees.” Ware’s encouragements—to “put a little emotion and feeling and savoir faire into it”—again proved futile.
Ware was clearly rooting for his classmate, as were, he says, the other members of the fraternity. “I knew he was a little bit strange,” he admits. “But he’s genuine … I feel so lucky to have had him as a friend”—a friend, by the way, who gave Ware a number: 569.
Throughout Donald’s youth, it helped, no doubt, that the Tripletts had money—the money to get Leo Kanner’s attention in Baltimore, the funds to pay room and board at the Lewises’ farm. As the town’s bankers, they also had status, which may have discouraged the sort of cruelty that can come to people like Donald. One insightful resident of Forest put it this way: “In a small southern town, if you’re odd and poor, you’re crazy; if you’re odd and rich, all you are is a little eccentric.” When Donald was grown, the family bank employed him as a teller, and an irrevocable trust fund established by his family pays his bills to this day. The fund, according to his younger brother, Oliver, was designed with controls that ensure, as he put it, “some gal wouldn’t be able to talk Don into marrying her and then abscond.” In fact, Donald has never expressed any interest in girlfriends, nor has he had one.
But he has his brother—they dine together every Sunday, along with Oliver’s wife—and he has a community that has always accepted him, since long before people in town had heard the word autism. Tranquility, familiarity, stability, and security—if we were talking about healing, these would create an ideal environment. Forest provided all of them for Donald, who didn’t need to heal. He needed only to grow, and that he did, spectacularly. In one of her later letters to Leo Kanner, Mary Triplett reported: “He has taken his place in society very well, so much better than we ever hoped for.” There were still difficulties, of course—she confessed to the psychiatrist, by this time a friend, “I wish I knew what his inner feelings really are”—but her fears of having borne a “hopelessly insane child” were long past. By the time she died, Donald had grown into manhood, learning more about the world and his place in it than she could ever have imagined in those early years.
But he never could count bricks. This, it turns out, is a myth.
Donald explained how it had come about only after we’d been talking for some time. It had begun with a chance encounter more than 60 years ago outside his father’s law office, where some fellow high-school students, aware of his reputation as a math whiz, challenged him to count the bricks in the county courthouse across the street. Maybe they were picking on him a little; maybe they were just seeking entertainment. Regardless, Donald says he glanced quickly at the building and tossed out a large number at random. Apparently the other kids bought it on the spot, because the story would be told and retold over the years, with the setting eventually shifting from courthouse to school building—a captivating local legend never, apparently, fact-checked.
A common presumption is that people with autism are not good at telling fibs or spinning yarns, that they are too literal-minded to invent facts that don’t align with established reality. On one level, the story of Donald and the bricks demonstrates again the risks inherent in such pigeonholing. But on another level, it reveals something unexpected about Donald in particular. At the time of that episode, he was a teenager, barely a decade removed from the near-total social disconnect that had defined his early childhood. By adolescence, however, it seems he’d already begun working at connecting with people, and had grasped that his math skills were something that others admired.
We know that, because we finally asked him directly why he’d pulled that number out of the air all those years ago. He closed his eyes to answer, and then surprised us a final time. Speaking as abruptly as ever, and with the usual absence of detail, he said simply, and perhaps obviously, “I just wanted for those boys to think well of me.”