Friday, September 17, 2010

Weekend Reading Suggestion: Autism’s First Child

The new issue of The Atlantic has a fascinating profile of the first person diagnosed with autism. Donald Gray Triplett is now 77.

“He is, in all likelihood, the best-traveled man in Forest, Mississippi. This is the same man whose favorite pastimes, as a boy, were spinning objects, spinning himself, and rolling nonsense words around in his mouth. At the time, he seemed destined for a cramped, barren adulthood—possibly lived out behind the windows of a state institution. Instead, he learned to golf, to drive, and to circumnavigate the globe—skills he first developed at the respective ages of 23, 27, and 36. In adulthood, Donald continued to branch out.”

The article makes the case that being accepted in the community in which Donald was raised played a key role in his growth.

“Tranquility, familiarity, stability, and security—if we were talking about healing, these would create an ideal environment. Forest provided all of them for Donald, who didn’t need to heal. He needed only to grow, and that he did, spectacularly.”

The article also broaches the general topic of adults with autism.

“The truth is that we often deny to adults with autism the kind of empathy and support we make readily available to children with the condition—or, for that matter, to people with white canes at crosswalks. We underestimate their capabilities, reveal our discomfort in their company, and display impatience when they inconvenience us.”

The article quotes Dr. Peter Gerhardt, a leading expert on adults with autism:

“At present, he contends, schooling for children with high-functioning levels of autism overemphasizes traditional academic achievement—trying to learn French or the state capitals—at the expense of what someone like Tony really needs, a set of social skills that keep him from making mistakes such as hugging his neighbor the wrong way. These skills—like knowing how to swipe a Visa card—are not generally taught to kids with autism. And once they become adults, the teaching, in all too many cases, stops completely.”

If you can find the time this weekend, the full article is worth reading.

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