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May 16, 2022 38 mins

Donald Triplett graduated high school and then made it through college. Moving through adulthood he discovers pastimes that bring meaning and purpose to his life.

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
This episode contains scenes from arrests and harassment of people
with autism.

Speaker 2 (00:04):
While factual, some listeners may find the audio disturbing.

Speaker 3 (00:07):
Please take care when listening.

Speaker 4 (00:10):
Donald Triplet's golf swing begins with his thumbs standing a
little too far away from the ball, with his legs
spread wide like the letter A. Donald licks the pad
of each thumb, first the left and then the right,
before he wraps his fingers in a full grip. Then
he lifts the club over his head as though he's

hanging a banner. He holds that pose for a moment,
and then he heaves the club head in an arc
back to earth until it lands between his feet and stops.
Then he haanks it back above his head again and pauses,
and with one final stroke he commits to contact.

Speaker 1 (00:48):
The ball is gone and Donald, bouncing at the knees,
peers down the fairway admiring his shot.

Speaker 5 (00:58):
Don has a really unique waggle and swaying, and if
you've ever watched him go through the motions of that,
it's difficult to tuck your eyes away.

Speaker 1 (01:09):
That's Sid Salter. He's the former publisher of the Scott
County Times. He's known Donald for years.

Speaker 5 (01:15):
After all of that's over, he hits it right down
the middle of the fairway. Don is remarkably good golfer,
given the fact that he goes through all these gyrotions
before he makes contact with the ball.

Speaker 4 (01:28):
For decades, it was a given that there was only
one place you were going to find Donald in the afternoon,
Forrest Country Club.

Speaker 1 (01:36):
The first time we accompanied Don to the golf course
a few years back, he wore baggy khaki shorts and
a Queen Nit shirt with a bucket hat in pink
camouflage pulled down tight over his ears.

Speaker 4 (01:47):
Forrest Country Club is not a pretentious place, for one thing.
Membership is actually pretty affordable, and the brick clubhouse fronts
on a well cared for but mostly flat course that's
been carved out of the Mississippi Woods. Given day, the
roster of players you meet out in the fairways includes
lawyers and mechanics, bankers and truckers, salesmen and farmers, and

of course Donald, here's it again.

Speaker 5 (02:11):
And you know, golf courses, particularly rural South golf courses,
a lot of the colloquialism in the South is jinking.
You know, you're giving somebody a hard time criticizing their shot,
picking at him about not making a put. Don not
only participates in that in his way, but he sort

of good naturedly accepts it and kind of gives as
good as he takes.

Speaker 4 (02:41):
So you have golfed with him?

Speaker 5 (02:43):
Oh yeah, quite Frankly, I didn't play with Donald Lote
because I got tired of getting the beat. I couldn't
stand the heat.

Speaker 1 (02:54):
From iHeart podcasts. This is Autism's first child. I'm John
Don and I'm Karen Zucker.

Speaker 4 (03:01):
Episode five, Donald on the Move.

Speaker 1 (03:08):
Golf plays a huge role in the story of Donald's life.

Speaker 4 (03:12):
Donald started playing back in nineteen fifty six, when he
was twenty three years old, just out of college. He
had steady employment at the bank at that time, and
he had a roof over his head, living with his parents,
still in his childhood bedroom.

Speaker 1 (03:24):
He quickly fell in love with the game. It's not
hard to see why the game plays to so much
of the things that make him comfortable, you know.

Speaker 4 (03:33):
Think about it. Golf has a certain kind of sameness
built right into it. Basically, as a player, you're doing
the same thing over and over and over again.

Speaker 1 (03:42):
Swinging a club at the ball, and the ball just
sits there, it doesn't move until you move it.

Speaker 4 (03:50):
And there's no clock getting pressure to get it done.
You can play the game entirely at your own pace.

Speaker 1 (03:55):
It's consistent and you are in control of every movement.

Speaker 4 (03:59):
Plus there are numbers involved. Fifth green, eighteenth green, three handicap,
one under par, one over par, hole in one.

Speaker 1 (04:05):
It's a game of routine and ritual. Every hole starts
with a t shot, Every round ends in the same place.

Speaker 4 (04:15):
Sid told us that Donald could take or leave the
whole social part of the game. In fact, most of
the time Donald golfed alone. Sid thinks that for Donald
it's a sport he was most interested in playing within himself.

Speaker 1 (04:27):
Now that sounds abstract, but I know what Sid means.
When Donald plays golf, he is seeking something. It's an
activity that brings him fulfillment and meaning.

Speaker 4 (04:37):
You know, some of the people on the autism spectrum
whom we've met in our reporting talk about finding that
one thing that pursuit that winds up being all important
because it brings comfort and meaning to life and even
a relationship to the world around them.

Speaker 1 (04:52):
And for some people it's about finding a way to
connect to the people around them.

Speaker 4 (04:57):
Amy Gravino, whom you met in an early episode, is
one of those people who was able to realize she
had that thing that allowed her to just be her.

Speaker 6 (05:08):
I was this misshapen ball of dough that hadn't had
yet to be baked, if you will, and so I
couldn't offer an opinion on myself that didn't come from
someone else the one outlet I had, I would say,
because I did have an outlet, I did have a
way that I was able to kind of tap into
whoever that Amy Garvino wasn't there. And that was the writing.

And I began writing when I was ten years old,
and it was poetry. Initially it was like a valve
opening up and giving me a way to kind of
just let go of all the things that I was feeling.
But it was one thing that I was good at, apparently,
you know. My parents would send my poems into the
local paper, and it was something that finally I could
actually be good at.

Speaker 1 (05:49):
And our brilliant friend John Robison's account of using his
intense interest to navigate the world is especially resident.

Speaker 4 (05:56):
You really cannot pigeonhole John Robison. So he's designed electronic
games for Milton Bradley, and he's also designed guitars for
rock stars. He runs a high end car restoration business.
He's also an author and a speaker and a neurodiversity scholar,
and for a long time he was an activist who
did research and produced reports for big government agencies.

Speaker 2 (06:16):
Well, for all of my life, before I knew about autism,
I was keenly aware of my social deficiencies. I knew
that I didn't have friends, and people didn't want to
invite me places or do things with me.

Speaker 1 (06:38):
John was diagnosed with autism at forty years old.

Speaker 3 (06:43):
I just thought that I was like a second rate person, and.

Speaker 2 (06:49):
I still I guess it still bothers me when I
can't get things right. But I have been really lucky
in my life because first, when I was in my
early twenties, I was able to engineer musical things that

would sing for the world, and people appreciated those things,
and at least the people in the music community would
talk to me about the things that I could speak
to and the things I could do. And I took
up from fixing cars and people would come to talk
to me about the cars. I took up photography and

people would talk about the images, and then I began
writing about autism, and people talk to me about that.

Speaker 3 (07:42):
But in every case, the work.

Speaker 2 (07:46):
That I created spoke for me, and for me, that's
how I have overcome the disability of not being able
to figure out what to say. I don't figure it
out other people things to me.

Speaker 4 (08:01):
John grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts. Both of his parents
were college professors. The university setting was essential to John
being able to find his way. Eventually, John Skills got
him noticed by some big time musicians.

Speaker 2 (08:15):
Well, one of the big things in Amherst every year
was a spring concert in the stadium at the University
of Massachusetts, and they would bring in bands, and.

Speaker 3 (08:29):
So I went down.

Speaker 2 (08:31):
There because I was by that time working with local
bands helping out. I saw these guys backstage that had
like amplifiers pulled out of the racks.

Speaker 3 (08:41):
They were struggling with them, and of course.

Speaker 2 (08:44):
By then I started to feel like I was confident
about knowing about musicians equipment. And I walked over and
I asked what they were doing, and the guy says,
you know, he's.

Speaker 3 (08:56):
Try to get the amplifiers working.

Speaker 2 (08:57):
And do I know anything about Fay's Linears said yeah,
you know, I didn't really know much.

Speaker 3 (09:02):
About them, but I was confident and.

Speaker 2 (09:07):
He invited me up and I was able to do
something that he thought was clever and useful. And he says,
he says, if you can fix these things, I got
a whole room full of them down at our place
in New York. You come down there and work on him.
And it turned out that he was from a sound

company called Britannia Rowe, who was what Pink Floyd had
set up to put their equipment out on the road
when Pink Floyd wasn't touring. I went down and started
fixing their gear, and then I started modifying it and
building more gear, and I became their American engineer. And

one day we had folks from Kiss come into the
studio wanting to rent a monitor system, and while they
were in there, I saw a he freely a guitar player,
digging at a less Paul guitar with a chisel, and
I went to see what was the matter with him,
and he told me that he wanted to make the

guitar blow, smoke and fire, and I wanted to just
get it out of his hands because I thought he's
destroying it. And I said, well, I could do that professionally.
And he asked what I would do, and I said, well,
we could, you know, put smoke bombs in it, We
could put lights in it. We could insulate it so
it wouldn't burn up. And he had Gibson send me

a guitar. And from that beginning I designed all of
the instruments that Ace played that shot fire, shot, rockets,
lit up and blew up, anything like that.

Speaker 3 (10:47):
I made them. And I also did work on the
amplifiers themselves.

Speaker 4 (10:54):
John Robinson's own intense interest does work with amplifiers and
guitars got him hired as part of the crew for
bands like Kiss. That work got him away from Amherst,
and it got him out into the world.

Speaker 2 (11:05):
I went all over him, went all over the United States.
I went to England and went to Germany, but Canada.

Speaker 1 (11:16):
You know, John's story is fantastic, and so is Amy's.
They are both success stories.

Speaker 4 (11:21):
And it's great to hear them telling their stories in
their own words.

Speaker 1 (11:25):
But the spectrum, it's so broad and so complex that
almost half the people diagnosed with autism can't tell their
own stories because literally they can't speak or communicate their
life experiences in ways that most of us are capable
of taking in and understanding.

Speaker 4 (11:42):
It's important to remember that each person on the spectrum
also has a story and a way to connect and
something to say.

Speaker 1 (11:51):
Even if it's not completely obvious yet. Sometimes it needs
the rest of us to go more than halfway to
really understand.

Speaker 4 (12:00):
Of course, Donald's unique way of connecting to the world
around him, the golf and the numbers, it was always
pretty easy to see where he was coming from.

Speaker 1 (12:09):
After the break, Donald learns his own lessons about freedom
and takes flight literally.

Speaker 4 (12:19):
Donald was twenty seven years old in nineteen sixty when
he first learned how to drive a car. His mother,
who had been his teacher all his life, taught him
how to operate the family's Ford Fairlane, a massive barge
of a car, and we've imagined how this might have worked. First,
with the engine still off, Mary would have talked Donald
through the whole routine, checking the mirrors, where to put
his hands on the steering wheel, how to speed up,

how to slow down, and then.

Speaker 1 (12:42):
Because Donald is not at all tall, he would have
pulled himself forward so that his chin almost touched the
steering wheel. It's easy to Imagine him tensing up as
he put the key into the ignition and brought the
car to life. And imagine how this moment must have
fell from Mary as Donald turned out of the driveway
for the first time.

Speaker 4 (13:07):
This man sitting next to her once seemed like someone
incapable of recognizing danger. But Donald had come so far
from the boy she once worried about as being possibly
hopelessly insane, as she actually once thought. And now the
road was his whenever he wanted. Donald wasn't content to

stay close to Forrest. As an adult, Donald packed up
and left town on holiday at least a dozen times
every year.

Speaker 1 (13:41):
In those days, it was pretty common for small town
newspapers to report when somebody went out of town. Donald
will go to, say, Dallas for a few days, or
New Mexico, and it would make the society page of
the Scott County Times. He became known for his travels.
Here's his lifelong friend and neighbor, John Russia.

Speaker 3 (14:02):
He traveled a lot ourselves. Nothing like him off us
to go from.

Speaker 7 (14:08):
I'll tell you for sure, now done, he's ready to
go an emotional nose.

Speaker 4 (14:16):
As a rule, whenever he could, Donald kept his trips
to six days exactly because he tried to be back
in forest for Sunday Bible study.

Speaker 1 (14:24):
He always traveled alone.

Speaker 4 (14:26):
By the time we first met him, when he was
in his late seventies, Donald had been to at least
twenty eight American states, including Hawaii.

Speaker 1 (14:34):
Many of them several times.

Speaker 4 (14:35):
And he'd been to more than thirty six foreign countries.

Speaker 1 (14:38):
The list is incredible. Germany, Tunisia, Morocco, Hungary, Dubai, Spain, Portugal, France, Bulgaria, Columbia.

Speaker 4 (14:48):
He's taken snapshots of the Pyramids in Egypt, the New
York City skyline, the Grand Canyon.

Speaker 1 (14:57):
With your travels, what was the best part about govern
to Church?

Speaker 2 (15:00):

Speaker 7 (15:01):
I just enjoyed going there, saying, the Turkish Bela dancers
perform and all that good stuff.

Speaker 8 (15:07):
Of all the trips that you've done, could you tell
me like a couple of your favorite ones.

Speaker 7 (15:14):
Going to Grace, I'd fly to the to the airport
in Athens and take either a shuttle to the hotel
I was staying, or sometimes taking a text from the
airport to the hotel.

Speaker 4 (15:28):
It's again typical of Donald that when he talks about
his travels, he brings the conversation kind of around to
the logistics of his travel rather than to the experiences
he had and the people he met and the flavor
of it all.

Speaker 1 (15:41):
What Donald isn't mentioning there is that he meticulously documents
his trips, taking thousands of snapshots iconic buildings and statues
and mountaintops, the ones he had seen on TV or
read about in books when you returned home from his trips.
He organized all of his photos in albums until his

bookshelves were filled with memories.

Speaker 4 (16:04):
Then in the nineteen nineties he learned to use a
computer and Donald went back through all of his albums,
and now he's assigning numbers to each of his trips
and he's creating a database and an index that makes
it a lot easier for him to find specific photos.

Speaker 1 (16:18):
It's something about the categorizing, the organization of it all
that brings him pleasure.

Speaker 4 (16:24):
Also, that's how he made sense of the world. That's
how he kind of makes the world his own.

Speaker 5 (16:29):
You know.

Speaker 1 (16:29):
The travel part of his life is something that doesn't
fit neatly into the idea that Donald doesn't like change,
because of course every place is going to be different.
And maybe that shows how people with autism do grow
and stretch.

Speaker 4 (16:45):
But it's also true that Donald established a kind of
routine within the experience of traveling with going away for
just six days all of the time. And in fact,
many of the countries he went to he visited over
and over again, so there is kind of a routine there.
Or maybe he just really liked going to these places.

Donald was a world explorer, but he always came home
to Forrest, where he lived in his parents' house his
entire adult life.

Speaker 1 (17:19):
Forrest provided Donald with a sort of perfect combination of
circumstances for a man like him. Life in a small
community afforded predictability, tranquility, and safety. The pace was slow,
it was quiet. One day was just like the next.

Speaker 4 (17:36):
And Donald, by virtue of his wealth and his parents'
social standing, found himself in this embracing web of relationships
that come along with small town life where everyone knows
more than a little bit about everybody else.

Speaker 1 (17:48):
Forres just accepted Donald.

Speaker 4 (17:52):
As Donald's friend. Sid Salter says, and I'm paraphrasing a
little here. In a small southern town, if you're poor
and different, you're just different. But if you've got money
and you're different, well then you're eccentric.

Speaker 5 (18:10):
The whole discussion begs the question of had Don's family
not had the bank, if there had not been the
respect for mister Beeman triplet that the community had, would
Don's life have turned out the same way? If there
had not been the network of support, the job at

the bank, all of those things. Would Don's life have
turned out? Would he be able to travel the world alone?
Would he be able to function without oversight or a guardian?
And I think the answer is maybe, because one of
the things is a journalist that I observed, And it's

true in Mississippi, it's true all across the South. I
think it's probably true all over the country. Woefully inadequate
funding for mental health. And that's for more pronounced things
like schizophrenia. But when you talk about something as delicate

and mysterious as autism, which we still don't understand a
great deal about as a society, and we certainly don't
know how to deal with people who have profound autism,
I think it would have been very difficult if Don
had not had that.

Speaker 4 (19:34):
After the break, we talk about the cost of autism misunderstood.

Speaker 1 (19:48):
As we piece together Donald Triplett's adult life, we want
to take a moment to point out that today so
much of the conversation around autism is focused around young kids,
and that's progress, but there are so many big and
difficult challenges facing young adults and grown ups on the spectrum.
They are so vulnerable in many ways.

Speaker 4 (20:10):
A lot of people on the spectrum don't have the
sort of family or community support and awareness that Donald
Triplet has benefited from. Donald's parents had his back always,
and his community everybody from his neighbors to his teachers
to the police department, they all knew that Donald had
special needs. And John Robison and Amy Garvino, they're both
excellent communicators. But there are people on the spectrum who

don't have that kind of support and who cannot speak
for themselves, people who are more challenged and have difficulty
in complicated social situations, and that can have consequences, dangerous consequences.
You know where that comes up a lot, it's where
autistic people come face to face with the police. When
a cop doesn't know a lot about autism, that's not

a good mix.

Speaker 1 (20:56):
There are so many terrifying stories about police officers misunderstanding
or not having the proper training to effectively interact with
people on the spectrum. Think about it. A lot of
autistic people do things that police are trained to see
as suspicious behavior.

Speaker 4 (21:13):
You know, they might not look people in the eyes,
or they might need more time than most people to
answer even simple questions. They might run away when somebody
speaks loudly or sharply at them, or they might lose
it if somebody touches them.

Speaker 1 (21:24):
Any one of those has the potential to trigger an
officer's instinct that they're dealing with a suspicious situation when
all it is is autism. An innocent autistic person whose
behaviors the officers translating the wrong way. This is a
huge deal.

Speaker 4 (21:42):
Drexel University published a study in twenty seventeen that estimated
one in five teenagers with autism was stopped and questioned
by the police before the age of twenty one. Five
percent were actually arrested.

Speaker 1 (21:54):
And researchers at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia found that
people with disabilities, including those on the spectrum, are five
times more likely to be incarcerated then people in the
general population.

Speaker 4 (22:07):
Even a rudimentary Google search tells a devastating story.

Speaker 9 (22:10):
A Salt Lake City police officers shot and seriously wounded an.

Speaker 1 (22:14):
Unarmed thirteen year old autistic boy last night.

Speaker 10 (22:17):
The boy's mother called nine one one.

Speaker 9 (22:19):
Night and her officer with the Vacaville Police Department is
in hot water after video footage of him punching a
seventeen year old teenager with autism was posted by the
boys Fox night. Lawyers from the pomp Beach County Sheriff's
Office and the parents of an autistic team shot eleven
times by a deputy have reached a settlement of one
million dollars.

Speaker 10 (22:37):
Sheriffs deputies in a New Orleans suburbs set on a
shackled obie severely autistic sixteen year old boy for nine
minutes and put a choke hold on him for part
of that time until he died, escording to a federal
lawsuit filed Thursday against the sheriff and seven deputies in
the pad last.

Speaker 4 (22:55):
Year and now that police are wearing cameras a lot
more than they used to, where a starning to see
and hear how some of these encounters can go off
the rail so quickly. We saw that happen In Kodiak, Alaska,
in twenty fifteen, there.

Speaker 1 (23:09):
Were two tourists they were visiting Kodiak, staying at a
bed and breakfast in a quiet residential neighborhood. They thought
they saw a man trying to get into their rental car,
so they dialed nine one one.

Speaker 4 (23:20):
Nope, that was wrong. He was not trying to get
into their rental car. The man they saw was Nick Plettnikoff,
who was actually pretty well known around Kodiak and extremely
well liked. And he's autistic.

Speaker 8 (23:33):
He was born super healthy. Nine out of nine were
his upgars, and he was ahead of his milestones until
he wasn't and he developed autism in about eighteen months.

Speaker 4 (23:43):
That's Nick's mom, Judy Plettnikoff.

Speaker 8 (23:46):
And he's worked awfully hard, harder than harder you could
than you can imagine to achieve what he has. And
he's productive, and he contributes to the community, and he's taxes.
He's just an all around five end up standing citizen.

Speaker 4 (24:01):
That's for sure. Nick has a business engraving ID tags
for dogs. He sorts and transports recycling for a number
of different clients. He volunteers at the hospital, also at
Saint Mary's, which is the school that completely embraced him
when he went there as a kid. Now he volunteers
there setting up and breaking down the lunch room.

Speaker 1 (24:18):
These were all sorts of small triumphs for Nick. For him,
learning new things is hard. He takes a while to
process speech. He needs a lot of support day to day.
But he was getting more independent all the time.

Speaker 8 (24:31):
Oh, he's fabulous. We really believed. So he moved into
an apartment that's attached to our home after high school,
and we really believed that he would live independently and
we would eventually leave the house and somebody else this
house where he lives in the apartment, that we would
leave this house and somebody else could move in and

everything'd be just lovely. So he was doing fabulously. He
could shop for just a small list of items independently
and checked the mail obviously, and cook himself a light
meal and more or less get himself ready in the morning.
Need a little help, but he was doing really quite well.

Speaker 4 (25:15):
And just like a lot of autistic people, Nick likes routines,
and one of his routines was to head down the
street every day to collect the mail from the communal postal.

Speaker 1 (25:24):
Point, and another of his things he would check on
the cars parked along his way. His mom says he
was making sure all the doors.

Speaker 4 (25:31):
Were locked, and one of the cars he stopped at
belonged to those two guys from out of town, and
they thought maybe he was trying to break in, which
he was not, and they thought also that he had
been drinking, which he had not been doing.

Speaker 1 (25:44):
And then everything goes off the rails.

Speaker 4 (25:46):
They've called nine one one, and now the police show
up and they approached Nick, and Nick doesn't have the
skills to explain himself in that moment. He also doesn't
make eye contact with the officers, and apparently all of
this comes off to them as suspicious because they put
hands on him really quickly, and they spin him around
so that they can handcuff him.

Speaker 1 (26:07):
And Nick confused by what's happening all of a sudden,
it's terrified. He starts pleading with the cops. You can
hear that on the police camera recording.

Speaker 4 (26:17):
Hey can't go, and he's twisting his body as this
is all happening. And so what the cops see is
not an autistic guy who is just scared and confused.
They see someone not cooperating, and then they're down on

the ground with him and they're flipping Nick on his
stomach to get control over him, and one of the
cops is leading into his neck with his forearm, and
you keep hearing Nick saying something as they're all wrestling
on the pavement. He's apologizing.

Speaker 1 (26:52):
And what's especially disturbing is that one of the police
officers knows me. He keeps saying Nick, stop, but we
lay learned he was really new to the force, and
he doesn't step in and tell the other officers to stop.
Nick keeps saying, I want to go home, please, I'm sorry, Oh.

Speaker 3 (27:13):
Nick shop.

Speaker 4 (27:19):
And what happens next is really hard to take.

Speaker 1 (27:21):
They're holding Nick down, He's terrified, not calming down, but
getting more and more agitated.

Speaker 4 (27:27):
And one of the officers pulls out his pepper spray
and then he says and then the cop lasts him
in the face with the pepper spray, right in the eyes.
One of Nick's neighbors is watching all of this happen
from his house and he yells out to the cops,

you know you've just guard this kid for the rest
of his life. Another passer by runs to let Nick's mother, Judy,
know what's going on.

Speaker 1 (27:55):
Judy rushes to the scene. She sees police cars and
an ambulance and Nick surrounded by police. And this is
before she realizes he's been pepper sprayed. The officer in
charge speaks to her, and you can hear Judy trying
to stay cool. It's what some parents of people with
autism do when they're dealing with authority.

Speaker 4 (28:15):
Figures is he And at that point the mistake realized.
The officer tells her about the pepper spray.

Speaker 3 (28:23):
Okay, all right, we pepper sprayed him.

Speaker 4 (28:26):
Her outrage is palpable, a mother's outrage, and she insists
they take the cups off, and they do it.

Speaker 8 (28:35):
And then I Nick was stunned and not able to
get himself home at that point, so I kind of
put my arm around him and guide it a home.
My daughter came. She's a doctor. That was very helpful.
We cataloged his injuries. He had bruises a size of
footballs on him. He had a great big kidney punch
and scrapes and black and I mean he was beaten.

Speaker 1 (29:00):
You know. Nick's most serious injuries were invisible and they're
still there. Remember he had been doing really well, but
now his mom says.

Speaker 8 (29:10):
He lost his ability to take care of himself. He
didn't brush his own teeth again for seven months. So
he just lost a lot of skills. And the trauma,
the need for him to protect himself and be safe,
is what took over his That's the sympathetic response, that's
what took over his brain. I won't soon forget what
his psychologist told me, if you've got to protect him,

because these re traumatizations, while they won't kill him, will
make his life very difficult. And boy, she was right,
because one time he was so bad, it was so bad,
he'd completely lost control. He really thought they were coming
to get him again, and he pulled the doorknobs right

off the car trying to get out, trying to get
out of my car, and I could barely get him home,
and he just went so far backward again.

Speaker 4 (30:03):
So these kinds of misunderstandings and these kinds of mistakes,
the consequences are real and they're lasting. Also, let's be
honest that when people of color who have autism get
into these situations, the danger for them is likely to
get a lot higher, a lot faster, especially when they're
outside of their own communities where people know them.

Speaker 1 (30:23):
And there are some deeply ingrained problems to address here,
But at least we're seeing that many police forces around
the US are trying to do better with the autism
piece of it. There are programs now that train police
to recognize and understand autism better and to modify their
responses when they encounter autistic people, for starters, understanding that

their behaviors do not necessarily warrant suspicion, and to work
better to communicate and de escalate the situation.

Speaker 4 (30:51):
In fact, the Kodiak police did get some training after
all of this happened, but it's a problem that it's
often only after something bad happens that the corrective steps
are being taken. But they are being taken, and we
saw the teaching that the police are getting about autism,
and it's actually pretty basic. That's why it's also pretty useful.
So there is some progress in this area, but there

is still a long way to go. There are just
so many stories like this.

Speaker 1 (31:17):
I definitely have that worry about my son Micky. I
can see him innocently stumbling into some interaction with police
where they misread him, like say, his inability to explain
why he's in a particular place at a particular time,
or something like that and the whole thing going downhill
really fast. In fact, there was a time when he

was on an airplane and a baby had been crying
for hours, and that just hit one of his sensory
buttons and he became really agitated. And an agitated person
on a plane sets off all kinds of alarms. But
in this case, there was a flight attendant who got
that Mickey had autism, and he helped come down. As

for Donald, it's another way. He was lucky in a
place where everyone knew him. He was, as far as
we know, never subjected to that sort of trauma, another
gift of the community that surrounded him in Forest.

Speaker 4 (32:19):
In nineteen sixty two, a group of parents in Britain
founded what would become the National Autistic Society, the first
autism organization in the world.

Speaker 1 (32:28):
The early nineteen sixties were the beginning of a sea
change in autism. Parents became activists and began getting organized.
In nineteen sixty four, a small group of mothers of
disabled children begins to campaign for their children's access to
public education.

Speaker 4 (32:43):
In nineteen sixty nine, at the annual meeting of the
National Society for Autistic Children, doctor le O'Connor gives a
speech in which he states declaratively that blaming parents for
causing their children's autism is a bogus.

Speaker 1 (32:55):
Idea, which is a huge relief because really, almost from
the beginning of the diagnosis, clinicians and doctors had heat
lame on the parents, especially on mothers. It was the
beginning of the end of the refrigerator mother theory.

Speaker 4 (33:10):
The next decade, the nineteen seventies, is pivotal to the
rights of people on the autism spectrum. In nineteen seventy one,
a lawsuit in Pennsylvania demanding access to public education for
children with developmental disabilities is successful. Other states follow in
rapid succession. In nineteen seventy five, the Federal Education for
All Handicapped Children Act as passed, and after TV personality

Heraldo Rivera exposes horrendous conditions at the Willibrook State School
and Institution for the Intellectually Disabled in Staten Island, New York.
The scandal leads to the closing of Willibrook and the
shuddering of institutions like it.

Speaker 1 (33:46):
As the seventies turn into the eighties, the world learned
significantly more about autism as a condition. With a strong
genetic component data is published that supports the argument that
autism should be described as a spectrum, and in nineteen
eighty one, the English speaking world is introduced to the
research of Hans Asperger.

Speaker 4 (34:07):
And at the same time, autism began to reach into
the popular consciousness in ways it hadn't before, as Temple
Granden publishes her best selling book Emergence Labeled Autistic, which
was about her experience having autism.

Speaker 1 (34:19):
In nineteen eighty eight, Dustin Hoffman stars in the Hollywood
smash It Rainman, which put autism on the map in
ways it never was before.

Speaker 4 (34:27):
In the nineteen nineties, the timeline moves on. This decade
saw the creation of the first organization to fund biomedical
research into autism, the National Alliance for Autism Research, and
then other organizations pursuing similar research are launched and begin
winning grants. The nineteen nineties also signals the birth of
a new kind of struggle for rights and representation. A

self advocacy movement is born. The foundation for a thriving
neurodiversity movement is laid.

Speaker 1 (34:54):
In the two decades since our understanding of autism and
the space creative for people on the spectrum has ex
expanded exponentially.

Speaker 4 (35:01):
But Karen, you know what I think is so interesting.
While this change was going on, while the fight for
the rights of people with autism was being waged, while
the scientists were studying the disorder, and while activists were
pushing for recognition and access and opportunity, while this idea
of neurodiversity blossomed, you know what, Donald Triplet, Donald t
case number one, the kid all of this started with,

was doing for all of that time, living his life
exactly right. The world that was focused on autism had
no idea about Donald Triplett.

Speaker 1 (35:33):
And he had no idea about.

Speaker 4 (35:34):
Them, absolutely none. It's as though Donald and his parents
also existed in their own silo in that little town
called Forest. You can see their insulation from all of
this change going back to as early as nineteen forty nine,
when doctor Connor wrote his third article on autism. Doctor
Connor never mentioned Beaman or Mary Triplett by name, but
he described them and the other parents of the children

included in the study in not really flattering terms. He
I have described some of them as harsh and cold
and mechanical.

Speaker 1 (36:03):
We believe Mary and Beeman Triplet were completely oblivious to
this characterization, and so Donald living his life protected by
the comfy, little bubble of small town life in rural Mississippi.

Speaker 4 (36:16):
Donald had no clue about the whole story of autism
that was swirling around the world outside of Forrest, like
the development of groundbreaking therapies or the confusion over the
theory that autism was somehow tied to vaccinations. He had
nothing to do with the continuous broadening of the definition
of what constitutes autism.

Speaker 1 (36:34):
Ten years after Beaman Triplet's death, Mary Triplett died of
heart failure. Here's Oliver Triplett, Don's brother.

Speaker 11 (36:41):
I think she was a little bit concerned about the
fact that Don might have some problem managing his affairs
in the event of her death, which occurred in nineteen
eighty five, and about a year or so prior to
her demise to be visiting my mother, and she expressed

these concerns to me, and I pointed out to her,
I said, mother, I really don't think you have anything
to worry about, because Don has demonstrated he's a good
manager of his money. He traveled all over the world,
goes places, and does a lot of things that I
wouldn't dare do and said he does just fine. And

after the discussion was over, she said, Olivery, you've convinced
me that Don will do just fine. Said okay, it's great.
So she was satisfied in her own mind that Don
would be able to fare well for himself. That's a
great story, isn't it, Tobe.

Speaker 1 (37:49):
I'm John Don Van, I'm Karen Zucker. Autism's First Child
is a production of School of Humans and iHeart Podcasts
and based on our book and documentary film In a
Frank Key.

Speaker 4 (38:01):
Written by Alex French, senior staff writer at iHeart Originals.
Story editor is Matt Riddle.

Speaker 1 (38:07):
The podcast is produced by Alexander Ritchie.

Speaker 4 (38:09):
Original score composed and mixed by Alice McCoy, editing an
Assembly by Caliche Moyer, Scoring, mixing and mastering by Dan Marshall.
Voiceovers by Julia Christgau and Michael Coscarelli. Executive producers are
Virginia Prescott, Brandon Barr, Elsie Crowley and Jason English. Special
thanks to Ray Conley, Ernie Inderdott, and Will Pearson.

Speaker 1 (38:38):
School of Humans
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