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April 29, 2022 38 mins

After a difficult start to life, Donald Triplett, the little boy whose own mother described as “hopelessly insane,” is given a second chance. While psychologists try to make sense of Donald’s strange disorder, Donald does his best to fit into a world that doesn’t understand him.

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
In nineteen fifty one, a hypnotist and mind reader named
Franz Polgar performed for a night at the Forest, Mississippi
High School auditorium. Polgar was sort of a famous personality
back then. He went by doctor Polgar. He had appeared
in Life magazine, and he claimed to have been Sigmund
Freud's medical hypnotist, which turned out not to be true.
He even had his own TV show on CBS in

(00:22):
New York. During his short stay in Forest, Polgar boarded
at the home of Mary and Beamon Triplet, one of
Forest's wealthiest and best educated couples. A few years back,
Donald Triplet's brother Oliver, we called Polgar's visit. Yes, I
was Dr Franz Polgar right down, and he was a mentalist,

(00:45):
and he was he was a real deal, he really was.
We really didn't have hotels back then. Motels were almost
non existent, and the ones that they did have were
not a bar, you know. And so mother and father, yes,
extended hospitality to him. He was a very pleasant fellow.

(01:08):
Pulgar's act was mesmerizing audiences across America in towns large
and small. He did this for years. He went to
universities and to resorts, and he put on a three
parts show that consisted of a hypnosis demonstration, a mind
reading stunt, and various feats of memory and litis hit

(01:29):
demon For my next demonstration, believe dividing but volunteers my
page when I ed, I shall use my mind reading
abilities to find the page. During the show he did

(01:49):
in Forest, Pulgar called seven high schoolers to the stage,
and Donald was one of them. He put them under
his spell and for an hour he entertained the audience
by having some light heart it fun at the expense
of all the kids on the stage. Karen asked Donald
about being part of this demonstration. He couldn't hypnotaze. He
knew he was failing that and he said, go down.

(02:15):
Huh you left to get off the stage, which I
can't use you. It turned out that Polgar's technique just
didn't work on Donald, and after his performance in Forest,
back at the Triplet Home, Polgar got a closer look
at Donald, who was then eighteen. Donald came off as
a distant, uninterested in conversation, and awkward in his movements,

(02:40):
and yet he nevertheless dazzled Polgar with an incredible routine
of mental gymnastics, an ability to name musical notes as
they were played on a piano, and a genius for
multiplying numbers in his head. Polgar tossed out something like
eighty seven times twenty three, and Donald, with his eyes
closed and not a hint of hesitation, correctly answered two

(03:03):
thou and one. Donald doing this was already something of
a local legend. People in neighboring towns had heard of
the team from Forest who was capable of incredible calculations.
Here's Oliver Triplet again. He was a native of Poland
and was involved in the war, and somehow another his
psychic abilities ah improved or came into being as a

(03:29):
result of the trauma that he underwent, and he came
over here and he'd make tours, community concert tours. Came
to Forest and quickly realized that Don would work out good,
you know, if he could get him to go with
if you could talk to my mother and to father.

(03:50):
Actually Pulgar was Hungarian. But if you didn't catch that
last part, Oliver said that Pulgar realized that Don could
help his act if only he could talk Mary and
Beamon Triplet into allowing him to go out on the Road.
Donald's parents were totally taken aback by this request. You know,
things were just starting to go well for Don. He
was in high school now, with his sights set on college.

(04:13):
And of course they put the thumb down all that dad.
Dear Mary Triplet, she was not going to let anyone
use her son as a sidekick for entertainment. No way,
not happening. From my Heart Radio, this is Autism's first child.

(04:37):
I'm John Don Benner and I'm Karen Zuker. This is
episode three. I Wish myself luck. A decade before he
amazed Franz Pulgar, Donald Triplet fascinated another doctor, Leo Connor.

(04:57):
Connor had better bonavides than Polgar. We talked about him
in our last episode. In his day, he was considered
the world's leading child psychiatrist. After Donald's visit to Dr
Connor in Baltimore, in Mary would outline in her letters
all of the ways that Donald was steadily changing, growing
and discovering how to connect. Nine. Mary Triplett used her

(05:21):
influence in Forest to get Donald enrolled in the first grade.
Getting Donald into the local public school was no small ask.
Mary would have known that schools all over the country
routinely rejected kids like Donald, and the law back them up,
but she pressed on. School took some getting used to.
Donald's behavior was occasionally disruptive in those early days, but

(05:44):
it wasn't too long before Donald was actually doing okay,
Better than okay, I think we can say he started
to show some really remarkable progress. Mary wrote to Dr Connor,
Dawn is much more independent. He wants to do many
things for himself. He marches in line nicely, answers when

(06:06):
called upon, and is more biddable and obedient. I visited
his classroom this morning and was amazed to see how
nicely he cooperated and responded. He was very quiet and
calm and listen to what the teacher was saying about
half the time. He does not squeal or run around,

(06:26):
but takes his place like the other children. His use
of language improved, He answered questions from time to time,
He became immersed in his work. He even played with
other children, something he'd never shown interest in before. For
a child who had a phobia for change, this was
real progress. So Donald survived the first grade, and then

(06:50):
the second grade, and then the third grade. And if
you think about it, that makes sense because the routine
of the classroom may have suited his need for sameness.
He went to the same building every day at the
same hour, and he stayed for the same length of time.
His seat was always where it was supposed to be.
A classroom Bell told him when it was time to
come and when it was time to go. But a

(07:10):
school became more demanding, it became clear that there was
a gap between what the school expected and what Donald
was capable of academically and socially. By the spring of
while Don's original first grade classmates were cruising through the
fourth grade, Donald was back at home with his mother,
helping her with routine chores while she engaged him on

(07:32):
numbers and dates, both obsessions for Donald. But she also
found it a little bit overwhelming being Donald's full time
teacher and playmates, perhaps more than she could handle. It
was Dr Connor's idea that maybe having Donald lived somewhere
else would work better for her and for Donald. So
for the second time, Donald went to live somewhere else.

(07:54):
This time, though Marian Beaman did not drop him at
an institution, just the opposite. Really, they sent him to
live part time on a farm twenty minutes outside of town.
It was owned by a poor, childless couple named Ernest
and Josephine Lewis. Ernest and Josephine didn't have much education,
but they had reputations as honest, hard working people. Here's

(08:17):
Oliver Triplet, Don's brother. Part part of the recommended therapy
by Dr Connor was that he felt like Don with
fair better in a more idyllic environment out in the country, uh,
preferably to live with a childish couple. My father knew

(08:39):
the chantry clerk here in Scott County and his name
was Taylor Tadlock, and Taylor is the one who recommended
to my father Ernest and Josephine Lewis. And so sure enough,
my father, you know, uh introduced himself to the Lewis
as he didn't know them, and they immediately, you know,

(09:02):
said yo, yes, we'll we'd love to have done. The
living conditions at the Lewis's house were rustic, to say
the least, no electricity, no running water, the toilet was
an outhouse. Years later we we got more details on
all of this from Donald and from his brother Oliver,
who spent the occasional night out at the Lewis house.
No electricity and no no water except for well water

(09:27):
that had to be pumped. Don't you done? Don't you
remember that old pomp? I remember pumping water. You're not joking.
You do wood burning, stove and all of that. I
mean it was it was pretty primitive. What was it
like to live without any electricity? Well, I kind of
got used to it. Huh krochene lamps and all that

(09:48):
good stuff, and put colin round the hearth and getting
in front of the fire. That's that's try. I got
the heat and stuff like that, and cooking. What point
of George did you do there? Uh? Oh, I'd bring
stove wood from the from the outside and bring it

(10:09):
in and get out of where the chickens were and
putting grange of corn out there for the chicken street
were you were in the mule also in the field. Yeah, yeah,
I tried plowing, plowering a move and say and gee

(10:30):
and hall. You're like a little boy. Yah. Yeah. I
was only about nine years old the first time I
try to plow. Yeah, it went great. I enjoyed getting
out there. When Donald was eleven, Dr Connor showed up

(10:54):
in forest to take a look at how things were going.
He wanted to see how is most intriguing patient was
holding up, so Marian beaman. They brought Connor out to
the farm and Ernest and Josephine showed the psychiatrists around
the place. They walked him through Donald's chores. Donald ran
into a cornfield, took up the reins of a heavy

(11:16):
plow horse, and put the animal to work, blowing one
long row, then turning around to begin another. Mr. Lewis
explained this all began when Donald started walking the cornfields
obsessively counting the rose. Ernest showed Donald how to control
the horse and maneuver the plowshare. Donald was able to
count the rose while working them. After Connor watched Donald

(11:39):
happily plow, Ernest explained to Dr Connor that Donald obsessed
over the process of measurement and took a yardstick to
whatever he could find. The farm needed a new well,
and so Ernest recruited Donald to help dig it, presenting
the task as a measuring project. They actually, by accident,
kind of devised a therapeutic solution to do different kinds

(12:00):
of deficits. On the one hand, there was this rigid
structure to life on the farm, the same pattern every morning,
every night, every season. Donald had no choice but to
abide by the schedule, and by the way, this was
not full time life out on the farm. Every other
weekend his parents came out and picked him up and
took him home for a night or two. The family
was staying together. Don made huge strides. After a while,

(12:25):
the lewis Has brought him to a nearby school, a
one room schoolhouse attended with kids of all grade levels.
This setting allowed Donald to progress at his own pace.
He began writing letters home, using complete sentences and concrete
details about his days on the farm, and at the
same time he was becoming more verbal, more creative, more

(12:47):
accomplished in completing complex tasks. He had the structure he needed,
but he also had the freedom to explore. Donald stayed
with the Lewis's for four years. In Dr Connor's estimation,
living on the farm was the best thing that ever
happened to Donald. His growth there was a leap across
an abyss and proof then and now that many kids

(13:10):
with autism grow past the most difficult challenges they faced
in early childhood. After the break the Fight of Donald
Triplett's life and high school glory in the winter of
when Don was fourteen, he got really sick. He had

(13:30):
fevers as high as a hundred four degrees. He had chills,
he was delirious, he had searing pain in his joints.
He was bedridden, and he regretted becoming a little bit
more like his toddler self, exceedingly nervous, which was the
word his brother Oliver used. And that would have been
in the winter of four to seven one at Don

(13:52):
when you were still living at the Lewis place, and
they brought down in because he had a high fever
and read it. They weren't able to diagnose what its
proper problem was, and I know they took him to
the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, could not come up

(14:12):
with a diagnosis. And Don was in really rough shape.
And my father happened to be down in Rawley, Mississippi,
which is about thirty five twenty five miles south of
where we are here, you know, Smith County, and this doctor,
doctor Corsey, down there, without even having seemed one, said

(14:33):
beam and that's what they referred to. My thought, as
it seems to me that what your son is suffering
from maybe a rare case of juva juvenile rheumatori arthritis.
Today it's known as juvenile ideopathic arthritis for reasons we
still don't understand. The body's immune system turns on itself
and attacks the tissues and the joints. Children who survived

(14:56):
the fevers often suffer lasting damage as the joints confused
together permanently. Still trying to address Donald's medical emergency, his
dad brought him to a clinic in Memphis that was
having some success with an experimental treatment that combined gold
salts and a steroid known as a c t H.
It's not clear if that's what did the trick, but

(15:18):
finally Donald started to get better there and he came
back from the brink. Joseph Hamilton at the Campbell's Clinic
in Memphis, who is dealing with with these disorders, that
if you want me to, I'll I'll book a room
for him. So they immediately took him up there and

(15:41):
after and Don had a very favorable response to the treatment.
But after after his release from the hospital, I don't
know whether this is the high fever that he that
he had for several months really wanted Don Donald stayed
in Memphis for two months before being charged and permanently

(16:01):
going home to his parents house. Being released from the
clinic didn't mean he was yet fully recovered. It took
Donald a year and a half to be up and
walking again. But as time passed in the pain also passed,
Donald began again to show the personality that had been
developing during his time on the farm. His improvement in
language resumed, and his ability to learn came back, and

(16:24):
if anything, had picked up pace. By the time he
fully recovered, Donald was sixteen years old, a young man,
and instead of sending Donald back to the lowest farm,
Mary Triplet decided to send Donald to high school. Now,
it's important to keep in mind that by nine fifty,
when Donald enrolled in Forest High, the Triplet and mc

(16:45):
cravey families carried more clout than ever. Beaman was the
town's best lawyer and served as a town dignitary. He
was chairman of the Boy Scouts and the Lions Club.
He also knew the Forest Chief of Police and the
editor of the Scott County Times, the town prosecutor, judges,
and even the governor of the state of Mississippi. And

(17:05):
Mary Triplet was no wallflower either. She was a mainstay
on the luncheon and garden party circuit. She made their
home a social hub for the whole community. She hosted
arts club meetings and choir practices for the Presbyterian Church.
A few visitors to the Triplet home had ever laid
eyes on Donald before this, who had been living out
on the farm for all those years. But suddenly Donald
was there all the time. The Triplets were done wavering.

(17:29):
They weren't going to hide Donald. They refused to be
ashamed of him. Their message was clear. If he interrupted
a choir practice at the house, or a poetry reading there,
or he talked too long about the calendar or Time
magazine or his comic book collection, people were just going
to have to live with it. That's who Donald was,
and his family expected him to be treated as an equal.

(17:52):
In Forest was a really small town, not even three
thousand citizens. Eman in Mary's message, the rest of the
community traveled quickly. It's not hard to imagine townspeople telling
their kids to leave the Triplet boy alone, to just
be nice to him. And Donald would have been an
easy target, both easy to mock and unaware of the mocking.

(18:17):
He was awkward, He could hardly hold a conversation, and
he walked stiffly with his arms apart at his side,
like a big letter a. He was small and somewhat defenseless,
but most everybody in Forest High School showed Donald kindness,
or at the very least they kept the wide birth
you're not a cruel can be particularly young, right, that's

(18:40):
John Rushing. He grew up just down the road from Donald.
Years earlier. John had often played on the swing set
in the Triplet's backyard under the new occasions were and
you know not to harm him, Lady, if you're not
a kid, draw or you're difference and so um. There

(19:00):
was a period of time where people, some of them
were really mean and insulting at times. In his days
at Forest High School, Donald found protectors. There were the
Rio Sisters, three tough girls who moved to Forest from
Louisiana's Cajun Country. The sisters had their own hard story

(19:23):
and John Rushing. He was too, grays ahead of Donald's
and a star on the Forest Bearcats football team. He
was a big, strong kid. I would want a big
board on a man three pounder. Was a big football player. Oh,
I've played tackle and and you to play defense Shavillion.
John just couldn't have other kids picking on Donald. So

(19:46):
with the Rio sisters and John Rushing covering Donald's flank,
the other kids at Forest High School learned Donald's ways.
And this is one of the ways in which Donald
Triplett was an extremely lucky young man. Because during our
years of reporting on autism, we have heard so many
stories about people on the spectrum being bullied in school
and the trauma that can come from that. My name

(20:08):
is Amy Gravino. I was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome at
the age of eleven. My diagnosis now would be autism
spectrum disorder under the guidelines of the new ds M five.
Amy is the first person who comes to mind when
we talk about bullying in the spectrum. She's a speaker, writer, activist,
and mentor for people on the spectrum. Amy is known

(20:30):
for going really deep on some of the most difficult
issues facing people on the spectrum and their families, issues
like bullying and sexuality. We want you to hear about
Amy's experiences in her own words. I remember the boy
who himself had some bullying going on because his sister
died from HIV at a time when that was not

(20:51):
something that was really talking about all blood transfusion, and
he stood up for me when I was being bullied
in sixth grade, and unfortunately he moved away right after.
That very person who, by the way, ever apologized to
me or for me, moved away right after I should say,
just coincidentally, I'm sure, but uh, it wasn't the greatest
thing in the world. You know. Amy's expertise on this
topic came to her the hard way. As a kid,

(21:13):
she had a really, really tough time at school. Even
though I was diagnosed at the age of eleven, word
autism didn't really mean anything at that point. Um, I
only knew that I was different and the different was bad. Right,
So when when I talk about this time in my life,
I do become emotional because that's what I remember is
how it felt. It's it's essentially a form of trauma

(21:35):
that I experienced at that young age, in those formative years.
When and when you experience this kind of trauma as
a child, I think, especially for children the autism spectrum,
we carry this with us for the rest of our lives.
We may be able to put it in a compartment somewhere,
we may be able to obviously move on and be happy,
have good lives. But that kind of trauma, when it
happens at that age, it never goes away, and it

(21:57):
informs how you view the world, how you interap act
with the world. The trouble started when Amy was young,
before I was diagnosed with autism. I remember looking around
at my peers and thinking, why don't they see things
the way that I do? What's wrong with them? And
following the diagnosis, which I think we also have coincided
with the onset of puberty and that very difficult time

(22:19):
in life when you're starting to become an adolescent and
discover your identity. Why can't I see things the way
that other kids do? What's wrong with me? You know,
in elementary school it's more overt and obvious how kids
treat other kids. In middle school becomes very subtle, which
is much harder um the way that kids bully, the
way that kids treat other kids. The clicks form, and

(22:39):
you're excluded for reasons that you don't even understand, or
they're they're pretending to be your friend one day and
they treat you like dirt the next day. And I
just kept throwing myself on the proverbial fire because I
didn't understand what they were doing. The girls were worse,
I would say, than the boys. The boys were more overt. Again,
there was one instance where a boy followed me literally
onto the school bus, calling me ugly amy over and
over again. You know, boys, to their credit, at least

(23:01):
are clearer about what they're doing. When I walked through
the halls at school, it was a combination of either
being made fun of her being ignored, And it was
hard to know some days which one was worse. Um
because if I was being made fun of and bullied,
they were at least taking the time to acknowledge that
I existed. You're here. We don't like you, you're weird

(23:22):
and you're not cool in any sense of the word,
but you're here. But if you're being ignored, it's as
though you just simply don't exist. Became very difficult for
me to distinguish between positive and negative attention. I was
so desperate I craved any kind of attention so badly
that I just didn't distinguish. So for example, once in
in home met class, we had to sew and this

(23:43):
may be why I don't sew it to this day.
But I had much longer hair than and my hair
got caught in the sewing machine and I was screaming,
and the kids just stood there and they either said
nothing or they were laughing at me. And you know,
what does that mean when someone can just regard someone
else's pain that readily? You know, when when when you're
someone who's different, it's as though your painting exists on

(24:05):
a different scale. And we've seen this all through history,
the way that people have been experimented on in different ways,
the way people believe that things about the pain threshold
of people who are not like them. But also most
days the hazing wasn't subtle at all. You're weird, you're
a freak, you're a retard, you're a loser, you're ugly.
These were the things that I heard on a daily basis.

(24:27):
And what ended up happening was that the voices of
my peers became the voice in my own head because
those voices stayed with me and affected my perception of myself,
affected how I felt about myself, how I interacted with
the world. It's very hard to interact with the world
when you are shrinking and when you are constantly feeling
like you are recoiling in on yourself and you don't
want to be seen, yet you feel like everyone is

(24:48):
looking at you for absolutely the wrong reasons. Um it's painful.
And I couldn't look even at TV and see someone
like me on television. The only show I remember seeing
people like me was Third Rock from the Sun, and
they aliens, but they were the first people on TV
I ever related to. High school offered no reprieve whatsoever
for amy. When we had an assignment for English class

(25:09):
and I chose to write about a threesome involving one
of my online friends and a member of the Backstreet
Boys and a MEMBERY and Sync. Now I had never
even kissed a boy at this point, so what business
I had writing about a threesome, I'll never know. Nonetheless,
I got in trouble in class. But the boys in
my class were like, well, we heard you wrote about
a threesome for you. Can you read to us? Read

(25:29):
it to us. So I stood there in the hallway
reading my story to these classmates, thinking that they were
my friends, that they like, we're accepting me, like, oh,
this is so great, And I was just a sideshow
act to them. I was a form of entertainment for
that afternoon, so I didn't recognize what was happening, that
I was being set up as an object of ridicule.

(25:51):
Amy says that kids on the spectrum are especially vulnerable
to a less overt form of bullying manipulation. They want friends,
they want attention, they want to be accepted. So we
hear all these stories all the time, with the story
of a young man who was talked to jumping off
a bridge and freezing cold water because these boys said
they would be his friends. So it it's so much work.

(26:15):
I mean that I don't want to certainly diminish bullying
other kids experience, and certainly it's terrible no matter who
is experiencing it. But I think for for individuals on
the spectrum, it's it's even more crushing, And especially for me,
the bullying that I had the most difficult time with
was from people who I thought liked me. I spent
the first twenty odd years of my life being absolutely

(26:35):
concerned and consumed what people thought of me, being very
self conscious, having no self esteem. It's not a good
way to live. What helped me to stop being defined
by other people was I stopped looking for that validation
from outside sources because I always had saught it. I
had sought it from peers when I was younger. I
saw it from boyfriends and guys when I got into college,
and then finally, what you know, later in my twenties,

(26:59):
I would say, into my early thirties, finally it started
to come from me, and it was the most powerful
place it could have come from. You know, when when
you decide that you're a person of worth, it makes
such a huge difference and how you react to the world,
how you perceived the world around you, and you see
people start to respond to you differently. And I never
I never realized it until it started happening. When I

(27:19):
thought about the possibility of going to my ten year reunion,
I thought that there was no way I could do that.
I thought, after everything I've been through, how could I
face these people? And when the ten year reunion came,
I realized that I wasn't angry, and I knew I
could be. I knew it. I had every conceivable right
to be angry with them. They may have had a

(27:39):
lot to do in my life then, but who I
am now has nothing to do with them. And so
I did confront the girl who had been my worst enemy.
She was there at the reunion, and until that point
I had kind of help this believe that people who
are bullies do it because they have so many issues
themselves and they've been hurt and bullied. And when I
sort of I said something to her about all, I

(28:00):
hope you know you've been able to make peace with
everything that was going on with you, she was like, oh, yeah, no,
I'm fine. I wasn't, you know. And and then it
occurred to me, said, you know, some people believe you
because their statistic little shits, but and I never occurred
to me at that point. And when I realized that,
I thought, Wow, okay, so you know what, I maybe

(28:23):
not everybody gets a redemption arc and that's okay, that's
and and I was able to move forward from there,
and I felt so much later after that. It was
really satisfying sense of closure to kind of understand that
the only hard moment at the reunion was when everybody
kind of went into their little clicks from high school
and it was me and weather kids just standing there

(28:44):
when they wanted to talk to um. But he was
But the difference was that he was a super sweet
kid that everybody liked. I was a weirdo that nobody liked,
so he wasn't really being left out. He was, you know,
he was like one of those floaters who could hang
out with anybody. That's how it is for Amy Gravino.
So what about Donald Triplett? How did he fare in

(29:06):
high school? With a handful of friends looking out for him,
and word around the high school that Donald triplet was
not to be messed with, it didn't take very long
for the bullies at Forest Hide to lose interest in
hassling Donald, so high school life moved ahead for him.

(29:28):
In some ways, Donald kept happily to himself. He moved
through the hallways, seemingly oblivious to the hormonal chaos swirling
around him. He usually sat along during lunch, and on
the playground he tended to wander off toward the edge
and stood out there on his own. The other students
got to know Donald's ways. For instance, they watched as
he stood by himself in the schoolyard, looking up at

(29:50):
the sky, drawing something invisible in the air with his
outstretched index finger. Donald's classmates paid close attention and determined
that he was writing invisible numbers. Performing arithmetic numbers soon
became the thing about Donald that everybody at the school
knew about. His classmates thought that he was some kind

(30:11):
of mathematical genius. And when they saw Donald scribbling in
a notebook, they would look over his shoulder and they
would see sheets filled with numerals, column after column and
page after page. Not understanding that Donald was creating some
sort of numberless decipherable only to Donald himself, they imagined
that he was performing some kind of higher level math.

(30:33):
It's at the center of a bunch of local legends,
and some were true, like the one about Donald meandering
around forest memorizing the license plate number of all the
park cars. But the most famous story that took place
outside the gymnasium. So, Karen, you're talking about the brick story,
I'm sure. So the story goes that one day Donald
was at school and he stepped out of the front

(30:54):
door of the school building, which was this big red
brick building, and he was surrounded by a group of
boys and they said to him, Hey, Donald, you're so
good with numbers, why don't you tell us how many
bricks are in the high school building there? And the
story goes that Donald looked over his shoulder for like
two seconds. Then he turns back to the boys and
he throws out the number at them, and they are
just stunned. Their jaws drop and they run off and

(31:15):
they tell all their friends that Donald just counted all
the bricks in high school. And then one guy tells another,
and another tells another, and it becomes legend. You know.
We're close to Donald, and and one day I just
asked him, you know, how did you do it? How
did you figure out how many bricks were in the wall.
And he looked at me and he said I didn't.

(31:36):
I made it up. And I said, well, why would
you do that? And he looked at me and he said,
I wanted the boys to like me, you know. And
and that just shows that Donald just like all of us,
you know, we all just want to be loved and
liked and have relationships with other people. We met a

(32:02):
woman who went to school with Donald named Janelle Brown,
and she told us a story about how one day
in high school, Donald walked up to her and she said,
Janelle Brown, from now on, your number is one thousand,
forty nine. And he would do that. He would walk
around school in around life around town giving numbers to people.
We asked a bunch of people who knew Donald if
they had numbers. Oh yeah, yeah, he gave me a

(32:25):
number sixty one or six to two years ago, five
hundred sixty nine, um, yes, thirteen fifteen one three one five.
He loves to give numbers to people, and he's been
doing that since he was in high school. I think
I know my dad had a number. A lot of
the times, it seemed Donald was handing these numbers out

(32:45):
kind of randomly and sometimes not like John Rushing, the
football star who protected him in high school. One night
at three one ninety three, as in John Rushing's number
that we're on the program, that's where you've got one
old don Do you a lot of people we talked
to this week, I don't remember their numbers? Yeah. If

(33:08):
we go over some of if we go over um,
some people, can you see if you remember them for us? Yeah?
I think so. Do you remember Ingred's number one and
fifty two? Can I ask you if I ask you
somebody's UM number, if you could say their name please? Um?
Do you remember Joe Bidness? Yeah, five hundred and six

(33:30):
to two. Remember Marthy's number? Yeah, fourteen. She told us
something about her number, because something about her and Margaret.
Do you remember, Uh, yeah, Margaret's number was one four,
one four and Martha's number was just one four. And
why were their numbers so similar? Well, I just to
make them begin with the letter MS. So funny because

(33:56):
they telled us they thought Martha thought it was because
they were best. Yeah, yeah, maybe it was. I asked
Sid Salter, who's a local journalist and a good friend
of Donald's, if Done had ever given him a number. No. Uh,
he never did, And I found myself strangely disappointed about that.
I actually was more concerned about the number for my

(34:19):
chance to go into heaven than I was about my looks.
I pretty well had accepted the looks part of it.
I think, uh, asking for the number would have been
a faux pa. Once you've been around him, and once
you've seen that and you realize that you know this
is really who he is. Uh, it's just difficult to
uh not, as I say, want to uh pull far

(34:42):
him and root far him and it in a community
like forest, Uh. I think one one reaction that Don
evoked from the townspeople, uh wasn't Yeah, Don's he's our guy,
and uh, we don't want to see anyone take advantage
of him or manipulate him or harm him in any what.

(35:06):
Donald himself, he's never really explained the rules to us,
the who and the y of it all, but it's
clear to John and I that this was Donald's way
of creating social interactions. Yeah, finding a way on his
own terms to connect with his schoolmates, and also, I'm
happy to say, to connect with us. Yeah, we got
Donald to give us numbers. I'm five nine and I'm

(35:29):
five fifty, so that's great to have Donald numbers. Were
very proud of that. I always say that mine's lower
because I'm younger. Isn't that hilarious. Well, meanwhile, Donald slowly
pushed his way towards getting his high school diploma. Donald's
senior year was by far his best year of school,
and math remained his strongest subject. He still struggled a

(35:52):
bit in economics, English, and history. Donald's senior year ninety
three was the year he really came into himself socially.
He joined a few clubs like the Future Farmers of America,
and he was also part of the choir, and he
landed a role in the theater department's production of a
play called The Monkey's Uncle. It's a popular force about
a young woman, a pretty young woman pretending to be

(36:15):
a boy, a skunk, and some romantic mismatches. Donald ironically
played the part of a teenaged bully. And it's also
interesting that there is no more socially collaborative school activity
than a school play. Putting on a theatrical presentation as
a group because you're memorizing lines and you have stage cues,
which plays to one of Donald's real strengths, and that

(36:37):
is memory. When the opening night came, Donald didn't seize
up with stage fright. He enjoyed the attention and executed
his lines perfectly. In June of nine three, it was
graduation and Mary and Beamon Triplet invited the entire senior
class over to the family home for a parents sponsored
good luck buffet supper. The senior boys and girls signed

(37:00):
each other's yearbooks. To one of the sweetest boys I knew,
d G. You're one of the best friends that even
if you did call me a thousand folds good luck. Don.
With that brain of yours, I'm sure you'll go far.
Tommy Huff, the student body president, wrote to one of
my best friends and one of the most brilliant students

(37:20):
I've ever known. Like all of his classmates, Donald was
staring down the barrel of some major life changes. He'd
been accepted to East Central Community College in Decatur, Mississippi,
which was twenty five miles from Forest. He was going
to live there, which means it would be his first
time away from home since living on the Lewis Farm.
There's some evidence he was excited for the adventure. In

(37:43):
his high school yearbook, under his own senior photo, he
scribbled a note to himself. Here's what he wrote. I
wish myself luck. I'm John don Vent as you know,
I am number five fifty, I'm Karen Zucker and I'm five.

(38:06):
Autism's First Child is a production of School of Humans
and I Heeart podcasts and based on our book and
documentary film in a different key. Production scoring, mixing, mastering,
and sound design by Alexander Ritchie. Our story editors are
Matt Riddle and Alex French, senior staff writer at I
Heeart Originals. Original score composed and mixed by Alice McCoy.

(38:29):
Voiceovers by Louis Carloso, Julia christ Gal Jed Drummond, Chris
Paul Smith and Missy Ritchie. Executive producers are Virginia Prescott,
Brandon barr, El C. Crowley and Jason English. Special thanks
to Ray Conley, Ernie, Indra Doot and Will Pearson School

(38:51):
of Humans
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