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December 13, 2022 22 mins

On Tuesday, December 13, at 9pm Eastern/8pm Central, John and Caren's documentary 'In a Different Key' premieres on PBS. They kindly joined iHeart's Mike Coscarelli to talk about the film, the reaction they've been getting to this podcast, and the latest adventures of Donald Triplett.

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Speaker 1 (00:06):
Hi, everybody. My name is Mike Coscarelli. I'm a producer
here at iHeart Media, and you're in luck because we
have a very special bonus episode for you today. I'm
here at the stars of Autism's First Child, John don
Van and Karen Zucker. Guys, thank you so much for
joining us and doing this today. We appreciate it. Hi, Mike,
our pleasure. Yeah, it's great to be here. We wanted
to talk to you guys today because this is an

exciting time for your both. Your documentary In a Different
Key debuts on PBS next week Tuesday December at nine
pm Eastern eight Central. First off, congratulations, you guys are
the big time now. Absolutely, before we go any further,
tell people exactly when and how they can watch. So
we're playing pretty much in every PBS station across the

country as far as we know. As you mentioned at
nine eastern and eight o'clock Central. Just look up your
local PBS station and there we will be on that night.
So now that we know where and when and how
we can watch the document Henery, I want to know
what are your plans for that night. Is there a
watch party planned? Is there a red carpet that you're
gonna be walking on. Can you walk us through that.
We think there are groups around the country, especially groups

that are connected to autism, that are having watched parties.
We're hearing about those. What we're doing is we're gathering
with a group of people who were helped us make
the film, either by backing us financially or giving us
advice or consultation, or who worked on the movie. We're
getting together in an apartment in New York City and
we're just going to have some food and wine, and

then at nine o'clock we're gonna pause and pop some champagne,
and we're gonna watch the opening credits. But we're we
decided not to make people sit and watch the movie,
so we're gonna watch the opening credits, and then after
the first minute and a half, we're gonna turn down
the sound and go back to having our celebration because
hopefully everyone who's there will have seen the movie by then. Yeah,
of course, I guess that makes sense. It's hard to

just sit back and watch something that you worked so
hard on for. I assume you know so many months
to a year, But have you guys seen the Obviously
you've seen the final product at this point, you don't
have to watch it on the night of premiers, right, Yeah.
I mean an important part of what we're doing and
we're going to continue to do it, is we've spent
since March of two we've been going around the country

and having screenings for small groups. We've been to twenty
three states with it, and we're going to keep going.
Any anybody who wants to bring us in for a
screening event for their communities from now on, we're totally
open to it. We watched the film to answer your question,
We've seen it like ten thousand times and um. And
then there's a conversation that follows the screening, which is

almost better than the movie, but not quite. It's very powerful,
powerful conversations. They've been honest and intimate and really really meaningful,
and they've included people on the spectrum, their families, people
who support people with autism through their work, first responders,
medical community educators, doctors. Yeah, yeah, which is what was

the goal of the film ultimately, was to get it
out there. That's incredible. I want to start up by
speaking generally to you guys, just about obviously, and I
heard we've worked on the podcast here. Uh, what are
some of the differences that the audience can expect between
the documentary and the podcast. The obvious difference is that,
first of all, you get to see what Donald Triplett
looks like, the first child ever diagnosed with autism, who's

now living in Mississippi, And many of the other people
who appear in the podcast also appear in the film,
like Amy Gravino and Amy Lutts and Stephanie Parks and
John robeson um, so you get to see what they
look like. The film is much shorter actually than the
podcast series, so the podcast there's there's more depth and

development of a number of the stories because we had
the time to really let people speak and say everything
they wanted to say. We're in the film, you know,
the whole film is only an hour and forty three minutes,
so you don't get as deep inside the characters and
the personalities of the people. Well as exciting as this
thing is for you guys, and you guys are going
to do your party in New York City with the

with the food and the cheese and everything, I imagine
that the premiere is going to be really big news
down in Forest Mississippi. Have you guys kept in touch
with Donald at all or other folks in the town.
We've become very close with the whole community, in fact,
because we've been there so many times, back and forth,
because before the film was the book. It's it's like

a second family down there. What is he up to
these days? Do you guys have updates on him at all? Yeah?
An interesting thing is Donald finally, after living all of
his life in one house, the house that his parents
built in the nine twenties, he moved into a much
more modern and smaller house that his brother, his deceased
brother owned. His brother Oliver, who was really really became

a good friend of ours and and helped us in
so many steps of making the book happened and then
making the movie happen. He died um a couple of
years ago, and Donald has moved into his house. And
the house that he lived in, which for us was
such an icon and so historic filled with so much history,
was demolished. It was it was knocked down because it

was it was quite old, and I guess the feeling
was that the it would the land and more value
with a new house being put on it. So we
were sorry to see that go. But Donald now is
in a whole new setting and it's really we in
fact visited with I heart. Yeah, yeah, that's when we
saw it the first time. So Donald got very quickly
acclimated to his new surroundings, which, you know, you don't

expect an older person to move into a new place
and adapt so quickly. And then there's a whole thing
that you know, it's just it's always sort of said
that people with autism don't like change, and that's true
of a lot of people with thoughts, and it was
definitely true of Donald when he was a child. But
he's adapted to the new place really really well. The
only thing that's changed really is that we think he
has finally stopped driving. That's a big change. Yeah, and

do what we're actually relieved, um, because it was time
for him to stop driving. And it's hard to stop
driving if you've been driving your whole life. Yeah. Yeah, man, Well,
I mean sorry to hear about the house, but it's
great that he, you know, adapting to change. I think
change is hard for just anybody in general. Yeah, he's
very proud of the house, and he gave us a

tour and he's very happy there and he's still getting
out and around. You know, he he worked for his
families bank for most of his life. And there's a
group called the Mississippi Young Bankers Association and they have
an annual convention and Donald started going when he was young,
but he kept going every year till till I believe

this year. I saw something on a Twitter post about Hey,
Donald Triplet's coming again, guys, you know, and so it's
all of these thirty five forty year old bankers and
Donald Trippling and they love him and welcome him. And
he loves going because it was, you know, is one
of his habits of going. So he's still getting out
and he's still traveling. He's so so, as we make
clear in in the podcast, he likes to go out

and travel the world. It's a really important thing for him,
and he's still doing that. Let's go back to the
actual documentary itself and you guys, obviously you've mentioned you've
been screening at a bunch. In these conversations that you're
having with fans and people that have seen the movie
of the documentary, have you gotten reactions to the podcast itself?
Are people coming up to you and saying like, man,

that hooked me, and then you know, now I had
to see this documentary and and and continue this journey.
We haven't had that connection. We haven't had people say
I saw that, I heard the podcast, now I want
to see the movie. We really would like that to happen.
But we met many people at the screenings who had
heard the podcast really really love it. And um, we

heard from you know, Amy Gravino, who uh is appears
prominently in the podcast. I'll just remind folks she's a
woman with on an autism spectrum who deals with sexuality
and was bullied and she's just one of our favorite
people in the world. Um. She heard from people around
the world. Um, very early on she was getting emails

from people in Ireland who had heard the podcast and
and others. And she tells us that it still keeps
coming in for her. So, um, we really really do
sense the podcast being out there, and um, I think
of it, you know, maybe more Karen that it's complementary
to the film, that the two work together really really well. Yeah,
And sticking with the sort of tour of these screenings

that you guys are going on, Karen, one of the
themes that you talked about specifically in the podcast is
that we should stand up for people who are different
and meet people more than halfway. That's what happened with
Donald and Forest his whole life. But have you guys
been given anecdotes from people um like that from their
communities when you go and if so, can you share
any So the very first time we showed the film

in public was in Mississippi. There's a film festival in
the town of Oxford, where the University of Mississippi has
its home, and there's an annual film festival, which really
is the state film festival from Mississippi. And what was
really interesting for two things that are interesting. One is
that Donald came in his family and many people from

his town of Forest, drove like two and a half
hour to come to this film festival and they overnight
it and Donald got to be in the audience when
the film was shown in public for the first time
and came up on stage and took about But the
other thing that happened there was that the next day
we were we were going to lunch and and Oxford
to small town. It's basically got one main street and
their seven or eight really nice restaurants there and we

were looking for one of them for lunch. And Karen
appears very prominently in the film. I do in a
little bit, but Karen's very prominent as the main storyteller
to the film. And Um, somebody walked up to her
and said, I was at the screening yesterday, and again,
this was not an audience made up of people connected
to autism. This was an audience of people who like movies.

So she comes up to Karen and says, I saw
you in the movie yesterday, and I just want to
say I didn't know anything about autism before and I'm
never going to be the same having seen the film.
And John and I looked at each other and thought,
that's it. That that's the goal of the film. That's
what we wanted is to touch people who didn't know,
who didn't necessarily care, and we're changed by seeing the film.

I mean, that was the ultimate we did it moment
for us. And we've seen we we've also seen in
screenings like moments of community happened. So we did an
event UM in Bentonville, Arkansas, UM, which is you know,
a really really lovely community. It's the home of the
Walmart Corporation. So, um, they have an incredibly well endowed
public school system with a fantastic auditorium that you know,

world class auditorium facility at the local high school. And
that's where the screening was. And they're about three people there.
And at the end of the film, we're up on
the stage and we're doing Q and A and a
woman starts talking from the audience and she starts to cry.
And I stopped and I say, ma'am, you know we
we can. You don't have to keep going. We can

chat maybe afterwards. And she said, no, no, no, I
I don't want to stop talking. But it's just I'm
I'm speaking now because I'm I'm the mother of somebody
who was just diagnosed. I have a small challenge who
was just diagnosed a month or two ago, and I'm
so scared because I don't know what to do, and
I have nobody to talk to and no support at
that moment, Like all around her, the other people in

the audience said, yes, you do, you have us. We're here,
We're here for you. And and and that's because there
were a lot of families there who have children on
the spectrum, and they had been organized and they were.
They basically welcomed her into their organization, and that was
such a such a beautiful and powerful moment. And there's
been many many other things like that in our screenings.

We've had events where the mayor of the town came
and the police department came and there you know, there's
as in the story that we tell in the podcast
series about bad interactions between police and people on the
spectrum because of misunderstanding of what autism is. Um. That's
in the film also, and we've had like really powerful

conversations happened when the police are in the audience and
families want to talk with them, and the police want
to say, how do we do better? What do we
do better? And those have been really really powerful conversations. Also,
the work is so affecting the podcast and and I
have yet to to watch the documentary, but I'm very
excited to get a chance to watch it. But um,
this is a great segue to the next thing that

I wanted to ask you guys about Donald's story being
the first case diagnosed with this. Um, I think that
there is uh my interpretation of it when I when
I really dove into the story, I didn't feel like
it was something that could happen if it wasn't in
a small town with a community like that. UM. And
I was wondering if you guys feel the same way

that the fact that at that time in history, if
the idea that you're in this community that has sort
of a front facing UM identity with everybody that you
you see around town, if that actually really made a
difference in the development of this first autism case. I

actually think there's two answers to that question. One is,
you know absolutely that the fact that the community embraced
Donald we think had a huge impact on his life. UM.
Some of that is because they were very prominent family,
the triplets in Forest, but I don't believe that it
was all of it. I believe so much of it

was that the community embraced him, and the community will say,
the people that we've met UM will tell us that
it wasn't them, that it was him. So the whole
idea of it being a small town was critical. But
I would also argue and I and I think we
we've told the story one of these stories in the

podcast as well, But you can have a community anywhere
UM embracing somebody who's different can happen um and it
can happen in a restaurant, It can happen in a
a bus, it can happen in the city. It's just
it can happen in the neighborhood within a city, or
in an apartment building within a city that could be

the community. You know. There's a story that I love
about Karen's son, Mickey, who lives in Phoenix. He has
certain routines and habits, and one of them is that
he likes to go to Starbucks to walk every morning
to the nearest Starbucks, which is about like an eight
minute walk, I guess. And he doesn't drink coffee, and
he doesn't spend money to freely, so he orders water.

And you know, there's no business, there's no percentage in
it for that Starbucks to serve him water every day.
But we were in Phoenix to do some some work
on the movie, and Karen and I, you know, we
were sitting there, but we we let's go to that
Starbucks this morning get a cup of coffee. And we
went to that Starbucks and there was a cup of
water on the counter with Mickey's name that apparently, like

every day they put out that cup of water because
they know his routine, and that's that's like really really
small gesture, that's a big deal. And some of that
has to do just as with Donald, who's really charming.
Mickey is really charming, and I guess he charmed them.
But there's also some heart in that little place, so
that little Starbucks is a community, we would say also,

and speaking of that, I think that the story of
the podcast specifically really documents the evolution of acceptance and
understanding from the gross ideology of eugenics to Donald's high
school days. I personally like to think that every generation
makes a little progress on issues like this in society.
How far do you feel we've come in your lifetime

and what still needs to be done to support people
with autism properly my lifetime, I I can say gigantically
in my lifetime. I was born in nineteen fifty five,
and when I was going to elementary school, which would
put that in the middle of the nineteen sixties, people
who have the challenges of autism were not in school.
They had no right to go to school, they were

not protected, so the school systems could just say we
don't want you and legally. Legally, that's what they did,
even for special ed. Special ed can't handle you, You're
out and there was no recourse. So so that changed.
That changed legally, I mean, parents fought for the right
so of a free public education and they won, and
people who are really different and disabled were put in institutions. Yeah. Yeah,

so we're just not in that world at all anymore.
So there's been a gigantic change. I also think that
you know, I'm saying this now as a boomer, I
I increasingly think that gen Z represents an embodiment of
a kind of acceptance and tolerance of diversity that that

that previous generations didn't quite get to. And I have
I put a lot of hope in that. You know,
gen Z. My kids are gen Z, so that generation.
Maybe it drives me crazy sometimes, but on this point,
I really really think that they're they're the teachers, as
a parent would say, we still have a really long
way to go that UM, when my son was young, UM,

teaching and educating children with autism was you know, the
major focus. And we have now sort of, to to
a large degree, come so far in doing that. And
you know, bringing children UM up and educating them in
the system, and they grow up into adults and that

can be somewhat independent, but we what we do is
once they become adults, we sort of let them fall
off a cliff and we have not figured out the
adults yet by any means for places where they're going
to live and and still in the workplace. It's it's
still really a struggle for people who are different to
be part of society as adults. In your opinion, if

people want to get involved, is there anything that they
can do directly to support people with autism. Yeah, it's
very direct. Um. What we try to do with the
stories that we tell, and you know, the story of
Autism's first Child in the podcast and the story retell
in the film in a different key in our book
of the same name, is that while you know, the

scientists are doing research and the educators are developing therapies,
there's another part that relates to all of us, and
that is too really step up to the notion that
people on the spectrum are not so meaningfully different they
were all different. Yeah, we're all we're all we're all different,
and some people have more challenges than others. But that

people on this on the spectrum there us and um,
they may need a little bit of help here and there,
as we all need a little bit of help here
and there, and some may need a lot of help
here and there. Are some of us need a lot
of help here and there, and so it comes down
to what can we do it. It means that if
you encounter a person who, um, who is having a
challenge of some kind, to to consider for a moment,

maybe what I'm seeing there is maybe I'm encountering an
autistic person. Maybe I'm encountering somebody who's on the autism
spectrum who's having a moment that's that's a little bit
of a challenge, and what can I do about it?
I can be not a jerk. I can be the
person who just rolls with it. I can be you know,
one of the people that appears in the podcast in

our movie, Amy Lutts said, you know what I would
really like is when when my child was little, and
if he knocked over the whole stack of ritz crackers
in the supermarket, instead of being surrounded by a bunch
of people standing there with their mouths open while he
had a meltdown, I would have liked it if somebody
had come up and said, you know what, I'll take
care of the crackers. I got that you take care
of your kid. So these we have the opportunity. What

we can all do is on the small scale, but
it's such an important scale because it's day to day.
Is just in the little interactions. Be a little bit knowledgeable,
be accepting, be a friend, have the back of somebody
who's different and might be struggling a little bit in
some situation or another. On the bigger scale, it can
be you know, support programs that are going to involve

using government resources to provide education. Um So, port the
the home in your community, in your neighborhood, on your block.
Um that's the home to like three or four people
on the spectrum who are living on your block. Don't
isolate them, but welcome them to the barbecue. Um So
that's on slightly bigger scale. But we really think on

the day to day basis, we all have a role
to play and if we play that role well those
of us who are not on the spectrum, it can
have a huge impact on whether the person who is
on the spectrum gets the chance to belong. Karen, one
question I'm sure, you get a lot from people. Is
is just general regards about your son Mickey. People will

get to spend some time, some quality time with him
and his story in the documentary. How is he doing
and is he excited to be a star. He's doing great.
He has good days, he has you know, not so
good days like everybody, but he's very excited. My movie
is going to air next week, so that's what he called.
He calls it my movie. So I think there's a
certain amount of pride in being part of it. Just

in closing here, is there a message that you guys
are both hoping something maybe that you haven't touched yet
in this interview that people are are taking away from
the documentary, Well, I think John said the most important point,
and so I would just almost want to reiterate it,
which is that it really isn't so hard to have
the back of someone who's different. It doesn't take that
much from you to do that, but it makes a

huge impact on the lives of people who are different
to just reach out and be their friends. Yeah, we
just love that this all happened with my heart. When
we got the call about a year and a half
ago to do a podcast. We just couldn't believe it,
and it came to pass and it's been a great experience,
and we would just love folks to know that we're
still out there and we can bring this the movie
to your community. Our website is in a different key,

the movie dot com and our book is still out
there in a different key, the story of autism. Tell
everybody about that, and tell everybody about this podcast, Autisms
First Child. Well, once again, guys, i'd like to thank
you both for joining us today. It's been so great
talking to both of you. Reminder to the audience that
it's called in a different key and you can watch
it on PBS on Tuesday, December at nine pm Eastern

eight pm Central. I am so excited to watch. Thank
you guys again so much. Thank you for having us.
We appreciate it.
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