Story pick: The alpha autistic
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.
| September 16, 2010; 7:11 AM ET
Categories: Story Picks
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