"If we could find a way to bottle the support that Forest has shown Donald, the world would be a better place," author Caren Zucker tells PEOPLE

By Darla Atlas
Updated January 29, 2016 03:10 PM
Credit: Courtesy Triplett Family

After a round of golf at the country club in Forest, Mississippi, one of the members bellied up to the bar and happened to see Donald Triplett, another golfer, approaching.

“He said, ‘Don, I’d like to buy you a drink,’ ” recalls Bubby Johnston, who witnessed the exchange. “Don said, ‘I’d rather have the money instead, if you don’t mind.’ ”

That quirky behavior is typical of Donald, now 82, who has autism. But once he began displaying symptoms as a child, his parents were baffled because no one had ever been diagnosed with the disorder before. In 1942, Donald became autism’s first-ever case.

In their new book, In a Different Key: The Story of Autism, authors Caren Zucker and John Donvan describe the frustration felt by Donald’s parents, Mary and Beamon Triplett. Their baby’s odd, aloof behavior led his mother to conclude that he was “hopelessly insane.”

Acting on doctors’ orders, they sent him to the Preventorium, an institution for children with medical issues. He arrived at the age of 3 and lived there for more than a year, until his parents had a change of heart. They’d found a child psychiatrist, Dr. Leo Kanner, who vowed to try to help their son.

Beamon described his son to the psychiatrist in a letter: “He never seems glad to see father or mother. He seems almost to draw into his shell, and live within himself.”

Four years later, Dr. Kanner sent his diagnosis to the Tripletts, which included the phrase “autistic disturbances of affective contact.” He was studying 11 children with the same symptoms, and Donald Triplett was Case 1.

Tracking down Case 1 decades later became a mission for Zucker and Donvan, who had worked together at ABC News. Although they’d done a series of news stories about autism, “we decided we needed to do something bigger and more important – something everlasting,” says Zucker, whose 21-year-old son has autism.

Working on clues from medical papers, which referred to Case 1 as “Donald T,” the journalists honed in on the small town where he lived and then pulled out the phone book.

“I went through all the Ts,” Zucker says. “At some point, I got an answering machine, and Donald had left a very interesting message.”

On his machine, he’d told callers, “Happy spring and have a happy fall. Merry Christmas and have a wonderful 2007.”

“Knowing what autism sounds like,” Zucker says, “I knew immediately that it was him.”

The two first approached a friend of the family and quickly learned something about the townsfolk of Forest: They are Donald’s protectors.

“They warned us if we messed with Donald, they’d come after us,” Zucker says. “This whole community has really embraced Donald throughout his whole life.”

But Donald has also learned to take care of himself. Still living in the house he grew up in, he graduated from high school and college, learned to drive at 27 and has worked at the bank his family owns. He is also a world traveler.

“Don’s traveling – I think it’s one of the great stories of his life,” says his younger brother, Oliver Triplett. “Once he played golf at 10 at night in Reykjavik, Iceland. He’s been to Europe, North Africa, Egypt, Libya, Greece, everywhere. Before Mother died, I assured her, ‘Look, this is a man who’s able to travel all over the world and do things I’d never do.’ It really gave her a peace of mind.”

Despite his adventures and independence, Donald’s autism remains evident.

“He’s different – you know something’s different about him when you meet him,” says friend Celeste Slay. “He’s a classic case.”

When he sees her at the bank where she works, he’ll inform her that he’s going to shoot her with a rubber band. (“And he does,” she adds.)

And she’s been assigned a random number by Donald, who does this with everyone he knows. His brother Oliver, for example, is number 400. Authors Zucker and Donvan are 549 and 550. And his friend and bank coworker, Denise Barnes, is 1,464.

Barnes keeps her Christmas gifts from Donald in a tin box at her desk.

“He’ll get a keychain and take it apart, and I’ll get the symbol on it and someone else will get the circle that holds the key,” she says. “Another time I got a plastic caterpillar from Scotland. These are things we would not trade.”

Although people with autism sometimes do not display their affection for others in a way most people would easily recognize, Barnes says that when it comes to the ladies at the bank, Donald tries.

“He pats,” she says. “He’ll put his arm around me, but kind of pat me on the back.

Because of those attempts at affection and the gifts, “I have a feeling something is there and he doesn’t know how to express it,” she adds.

His mother wondered the same thing. The book quotes her last letter to Kanner, in which she wrote, “I wish I knew what his inner feelings really are.” But she added that his life was “so much better than we had hoped for.”

That’s partly thanks to his hometown, Zucker says: “If we could find a way to bottle the support that Forest has shown Donald, the world would be a better place. Donald has continued to grow his whole life.”

By all accounts, that life has been enjoyable. He attends church, meets with a group of guys for coffee, visits the ladies at the bank each day, loves his Wheel of Fortune (“He’s really taken with Vanna White,” his brother says) and has literally seen the world. Had his parents followed doctors’ orders and left him in the institution, his life would have turned out much differently.

“She realized an institution was not the answer,” Oliver says of his mother. “She had the gumption to see if she could find a good child psychiatrist for him, and she did. It was a close call.”

In 1953, the book notes, Donald wrote a message in his own high-school yearbook: “I wish myself luck.” His friend Barnes thinks that luck has come to him in spades.

“His short answer to whether he’s had a good life would be, ‘I sure have,'” she says. “He’s got a peace about himself and expectations for tomorrow.”