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Story pick: The alpha autistic

By Steve Hendrix

Every now and then, writers of long-form journalism experience the great pleasure of stumbling on a story that is both obvious and unexplored. It must be the same pleasure a biologist feels in finding a new species of beetle on the campus quad. It's the kind of story it's a pleasure to pitch to an editor, who just stops you a few sentences in and says, "That's great. Go do it."

I can imagine it was a very short and satisfying editor's meeting at The Atlantic when John Donvan and Caren Zucker proposed this: A profile of the first person ever diagnosed with autism, a fellow named Donald Gray Triplett, 77, who is still alive and playing golf in Forest, Mississippi.

Donvan and Zucker went in search of info on "Case One, Donald T," an anonymous figure who has appeared in countless psychiatric textbooks since his peculiar behaviors were described "in a 1943 medical article that announced the discovery of a condition unlike 'anything reported so far,' the complex neurological ailment now most often called an autism spectrum disorder, or ASD. At the time, the condition was considered exceedingly rare, limited to Donald and 10 other children—Cases 2 through 11—also cited in that first article."

They found traces of his story in the archives of Johns Hopkins University. But when they track down the living Donald in his hometown, this tale becomes a near-classic. Now that autism has reached near-epidemic proportions, Case One's biography and current genteel life makes for a fascinating read.

We join them on the local links, where Donald plays a daily round:

The fact is that Donald’s not a bad golfer: tee shots mostly on the fairway, passable short game, can nail a six-foot putt. His swing, however, is an unfolding pantomime, a ritual of gestures he seems compelled to repeat with almost every shot—especially when he really wants the ball to travel.

He licks the fingers of his right hand, and then his left. Squaring himself to the ball, he raises his club skyward, until it’s straight up over his head, as if he were hoisting a banner. Sometimes he holds his arms up there for a long moment. Then he brings the club head back to earth, stopping not far from the ball, before taking it back up. He goes through a series of these backswings, picking up speed with each iteration until, stiff-legged, he inches forward to get his head over the ball. With one final stroke, he commits to contact. Crack! It’s gone, and Donald, bouncing up and down at the knees, peers down the fairway to see the result. As a swing, it’s the opposite of fluid. But it’s Donald’s own. And he never whiffs it.

They plumb his history, and his brush with hucksters who would have paraded the odd young southerner on the stage as a mathematical mentalist wonder. And they give due attention to the baffling explosion of autism diagnoses. But the main joy of this piece is its breezy humanity.

The only thing better than getting a great idea is executing it as well as this.

By Steve Hendrix  | September 16, 2010; 7:11 AM ET
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One has to wonder what constitutes an epidemic to the Washington Post. Polio was an epidemic when one in 3,000 Americans was affected in the 1950s. Autism is diagnosed in one percent of children, one in every 70 boys. I think it's safe to say that autism is an epidemic.

Hendrix may find the story of Donald T fascinating, but this is not a true picture of autism. Donald drives himself to his country club to play golf. It's vastly different from the countless thousands of autistic children who can't talk, are self-injurious, and in need of total care.
I hope Hendrix will find time to write on how we will provide for 700,000 autistic children when they reach adulthood.
No one seems worried about what's going to happen when one percent of Americans of all ages have autism.
Anne Dachel
Media editor: Age of Autism

Posted by: amdachel | September 16, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Thank you for bringing attention to the story about Donald T. that appears in the current Atlantic. You should know that more than five years ago UPI published a series on several of Kanner's original 11 children including an in depth treatment of Donald T. who reporter Dan Olmsted interviewed. The UPI stories probed areas of the story not even touched by the Atlantic reporters five years later.

Olmsted plumbed history far more incisively than the Atlantic reporters uncovering revelations about his course of treatment that are not even mentioned in the Atlantic article.

The Atlantic reporters covered this story in a feel good fashion that seems to provide comfort to the half million families that have children who have a diagnosis of autism. Unfortunately, many of those children have conditions far more severe than Donald T. who appears to possess intellectual functioning that is not disabling. While Atlantic presented an interesting treatment of the subject its subject was not a first journalistic discovery nor its treatment an original approach.

I am puzzled at the failure to even mention veteran UPI reporter Olmsted's groundbreaking journalism and the Atlantic writers' failure to explore some of the more disturbing aspects of the dramatic increase of severe autism and neuological disorders among children younger than 21.

I think the Atlantic ignored a much more incisive treatment of the subject and glossed over the real story.

Posted by: rkrakow | September 16, 2010 10:25 AM | Report abuse

These reporters were not the 1st to find Donald T and interview him. If you would like to read more about Donald T and many of the other 1st cases of autism in an extremely well done investigative manner please buy and read the book "The Age of Autism: Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-made Epidemic" By Mark Blaxill and Dan Olmsted!

Posted by: chapnalli1 | September 16, 2010 10:28 AM | Report abuse

This story of Donald almost sounds cute. But I guarantee you it's not cute when your children spread fecal matter all over the walls. It won't be cute either when these children become adults collecting social security that the taxpayers have to foot the bill for, nor when these youg adults have no place to go, and there's no help for them around the corner.
Maurine Meleck, SC

Don't forget :
THE AGE OF AUTISM- mercury, medicine and A Manmade Epidemic--by Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill--
the ones who should get the credit for the story of Donald--and Olmsted from Age of Autism especially at UPI

Posted by: maurine_meleck | September 16, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

"Every now and then, writers of long-form journalism experience the great pleasure of stumbling on a story that is both obvious and unexplored."

At one time .. writers of long-form journalism experience actually sought out "obvious and unexplored" stories instead of hoping to "stumble" upon them.

I am still waiting for someone to "stumble" upon the fact there is absolutely NO historical .. scientific evidence .. to indicate that thimerosal, a mercury based preservative once commonly found in childhood "safe and harmless" when injected into an entire generation of children.

Even though .. after DECADES of use .. this dangerous stubstance remains a prime suspect in causing numerous childhood development problems, including but not limited to "autism".

How is it possible that "long term journalists" never seem to "stumble" upon the many credible, scientific research studies clearly indicating the developmental deblilitating effects of thimerosal on various species .. rats, guinea pigs, monkees, etc?

I suspect they don't "stumble" over these studies because they take great care to avoid seeing them.

Posted by: rmoffi | September 16, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

You forgot a big portion of Donald T.'s story. Members of the autism community have known about him for years. When he was living with the farmer he developed arthritis. His father came and got him and was told by reputable physicians that there was nothing they could do. Another medical person gave the father "gold salts" for Donald to treat arthritis, consequently it is also used to extract mercury, hench his remarkable improvement. Donald grew up in Forest, Miss. A mercury fungicide was used on forestry, public lands and parks. The second case of Leo Kanner will give you a bigger clue to what happen to these children. Child number two, Timothy, had a plantologist for a father, who was part of this developement of these mercury fungicides. Even Timothy's mother developed kidney disease, which is also a symptom of mercury poisoning. Just like the coal miners brought home the coal dust and their wifes came down with black lung disease from the exposure. I suggest you pick up the new book "Mercury in Medicine, the man made epidemic, authored by Dan Olmstad and Mark Blaxil, it is available on Amazon. Leo Kanner, by the year 1959, had seen over 20,000 childlren with mental afflictions, but only 150 of them had autism. Now hundreds of thousands of children in this country have it and the public should be screaming at the top of their lungs, instead the media is putting out more and more slanted reports with the incomplete stories and made of causes spun by the medical community and pharmaceutical companies that created autism in the first place. Elaine Dow

Posted by: Mom4kidsNowmsncom | September 16, 2010 8:19 PM | Report abuse

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