Autism's First Child: Donald Triplett
Donald Triplett, the first person ever identified as autistic. Photo by Miller Mobley/Redux.
I can think of no better way to end 2010, the most autistic year ever, by going back to Donald Triplett. Caren Zucker and John Donvan found Donald, the first person ever identified as autistic, and published an article in October of this year that describes his long and happy life:
Donald drives his car with a light, percussive rhythm. After pressing on the gas pedal for a second, he lets up briefly, and then presses back down again. Down. Release. Down. Release. The tempo doesn’t vary. It’s late afternoon, and Donald is guiding his coffee-colored 2000 Cadillac, in hardly perceptible surges and glides, south along Mississippi’s Route 80. Though his forward posture and two-fisted grip on the wheel are those of an old man, his face beams like a boy’s. He wears the expression, at once relaxed and resolute, of a man who is doing precisely what he wants to be doing.
The day’s agenda thus far has included morning coffee with friends, a long walk for exercise, a Bonanza rerun on TV, and now, at 4:30, this short drive down Route 80 to get in some golf. “I noticed,” he mentions, “you have a Lafayette County sticker on your car.” He’s broken a long silence with that comment, a reference to the registration decal on the rental we parked in his driveway. His words hang there for a moment, and then he adds: “That means it comes from Lafayette County.” That’s all. Nodding to himself, Donald goes silent again, his focus returning to the road ahead, or tuned to some inner monologue. Given his tendency to close his eyes for long moments when he speaks, this is probably the safest choice.
He parks just short of the front steps of the Forest Country Club, an establishment without pretensions. The one-story red-brick clubhouse fronts onto a well-tended, mostly flat course carved out of the woods. Membership is $100 per family per month, and a round of 18 holes costs $20 on a weekday. On any given day, the roster of players on the fairways includes lawyers and mechanics, bankers and truckers, salesmen and farmers—and Donald. Actually, Donald is there every day, weather permitting. And almost every day, he golfs alone.
Not everyone who plays here realizes that “DT”—as he’s known around the club—has autism. But his quirks are hard to miss as he makes his way to the first tee, well within sight of members who take the shade in armchairs under the club’s columned portico. A small man in khaki shorts and a green knit shirt, with a pink-camouflage bucket hat pulled down tight over his ears, Donald strides to the tee with the distinctive gait that is often a tip-off for autism—his arms out from his sides in the shape of a large capital A, his steps just slightly mechanical, his head and shoulders bobbing left-right-left in the rocking movement of a metronome.