Monday, September 20, 2010

Haunting Question

“The question that haunts every parent of a child with autism is, What will happen when I die?”

The Atlantic runs a portrait of the first autism patient (“Case 1 - Donald T. ”), whose condition was documented in 1943. The life of Donald Gray Triplett, now 77, gives hope to every parent of an autistic child. Donald’s parents have been gone over 25 years, and their son “has freedom, independence, and good health. All in all, life has turned out well for autism’s first child.”

Donald’s typical day in Forest, Mississippi, is “morning coffee with friends, a long walk for exercise, a Bonanza rerun on TV, and [a] short drive down Route 80 to get in some golf.”

Donald was blessed with parents of means. More importantly, they indefatigably pursued the best treatments of the day, pulling the plug when they didn’t work. His lawyer father’s 33-page letter to a psychiatrist about his 5-year-old son is the first detailed listing of the symptoms of autism . (It doesn’t say so in the article, but it’s possible that the senior Triplett would today be placed somewhere on the autistic spectrum.)

Donald’s brother, Oliver, looks after him, as do other members of the Forest community. It helps that an irrevocable trust (Donald cannot touch the principal) provides for his basic needs and that his housing--he lives in his parents’ house—is taken care of. Donald is high-functioning; he is proficient with numbers and has learned enough skills to interact with others on a day-to-day basis. (It’s likely, however, that most “normal” people can tell he is “different” within just a few seconds of watching or talking to him.)
Donald reached his potential thanks, in large part, to the world he occupied—the world of Forest, Mississippi—and how it decided to respond to the odd child in its midst. Peter Gerhardt speaks of the importance of any community’s “acceptance” of those who have autism. In Forest, it appears, Donald was showered with acceptance, starting with the mother who defied experts to bring him back home, and continuing on to classmates from his childhood and golfing partners today. Donald’s neighbors not only shrug off his oddities, but openly admire his strengths—while taking a protective stance with any outsider whose intentions toward Donald may not have been sufficiently spelled out.
Whether one agrees with Hillary Clinton’s statement, it’s very clear that it does take a village to look after adults with autism. It also is likely that these special people have a better chance at happy, fulfilling lives in the towns of “flyover country” instead of the urban jungle.

Interesting throughout.

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