Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Autism after childhood - a profile of Donald Gray Triplett


John Donvan and Caren Zucker, writing for The Atlantic, have profiled Autism’s First Child - Donald Gray Triplett now aged 77.

Unlike some other media portraits, there is no doubt Mr. Tripplett has lived with one of the 10-500 variants of brain development we call "autism". Indeed, he and his caregivers defined the syndrome. The writing is respectful and sympathetic, but not sentimental. Mr. Triplett is not typical, but then is any autistic person typical?

Somehow, despite the story of an autistic savant who grew up in Forest Mississippi, they never mention Forrest Gump. I understand why they dodged that trap, but there's more than a passing resemblance.

The article is a legitimate work of science, in the same sense as Atal Gawande's analysis of medical cost variation for the New Yorker. This kind of qualitative study can't be published in today's shriveled medical journals, but this is work that identifies the failures of our presumptions.

Mr. Triplett, for example, learned to golf at 23 and to drive at 27, and he became a compulsive international traveler at 36. He never, however, became "normal". This article illustrates how poorly we understand the lifelong natural history of the injured, healing, and evolving brain.

The article also introduces us to the somewhat spectrumish researcher Peter Gerhardt. Gerhardt, a speaker for Spectrum Training Systems (WI), is one of the very few American researchers who studies autistic adults. (Yes, medical science does have structural problems.)

Gerhrdt, we're told, is developing a "program" focused on "adolescence to adulthood" at New York's (ABA intensive) McCarton School.  I followed up on that lead, but unfortunately he doesn't have a blog, though he does have a public Facebook page.

Dr. Gerhardt appears to have some ongoing relationship to the Virginia based Organization for Autism Research, the "only autism organization which focuses solely on applied research".

This is must read material for autistic persons, friends, families and caregivers. It's also a posthumous testament to the mad skills of Donald Gray Triplett's parents.