BOOK EXCERPT: 'In a Different Key: The Story of Autism' by John Donvan and Caren Zucker

The story of a mother's efforts to diagnose her son's autism.

ByABC News
January 15, 2016, 5:49 PM

— -- ABC News' John Donvan and Caren Zucker have teamed up to tell the story of Mary Triplett, a mother whose efforts to diagnose her son Donald's condition -- eventually identified as autism -- not only helped him but also opened doors for millions of children who followed.

"Mary Triplett was in a world where if you had a kid like Donald, you were told basically one thing: 'Put that child away and forget. Send them to an institution,'" Donvan told ABC News' David Muir. "And they did. They did for a little while, for about a year."

It was the 1930s and no one had even heard of autism. Zucker said the Tripletts, though, had a change of heart about Donald.

"They said, 'Wait a second. We're giving up too easy,'" Zucker said.

Mary Triplett fought to get Donald into school and when Donald was 27, she taught him to drive. Donald Triplett is now 82.

Read on for an excerpt from "In a Different Key: The Story of Autism."


1. D O N A L D

In 1935, five Canadian baby girls, all sisters, edged out Niagara Falls on the list of Canada's most popular tourist draws. That year, up to six thousand visitors each day took Route 11 into far northern Ontario for the sole purpose of gawking at the babies. By order of the provincial government, they had recently been removed from the care of their farmer parents, to be raised instead in a hurriedly built "hospital" situated not far from the family farmhouse. There they would have indoor plumbing, electricity, and a "scientific" upbringing overseen by a full-time doctor and two full-time nurses.

Three times a day, on cue, the girls were carried out to a grass-covered "play area" just a few yards from where a crowd waited for them. The audience was packed into a specially designed viewing arcade, tented and fitted with one-way screens so that the girls could never see who was making all the noise. Invariably, the moment they came into view, a warm sigh would float aloft, followed by coos, squeals, and scattered applause at the sight of history's first surviving identical quintuplets, who had been given only hours to live the night they were born, in May of the previous year.

Exotic by virtue of their genetic rarity, the Dionne quintuplets imprinted themselves indelibly on their generation. They were a matched set, yet unmatched in the example they set of human resilience, and the most famous children on earth. The future queen of England would visit them. Mae West, Clark Gable, and Bette Davis all made the trip north. So did Amelia Earhart, six weeks before her final flight, not to mention thousands of ordinary families on vacation.

All were transfixed, but never, apparently, troubled by the bizarreness, even cruelty, of the arrangement -- the girls' separation from their parents and from other children, their confinement in a setting they were allowed to leave only three times over the course of nine years, their government's exploitation of a random biological novelty to bring tourist dollars into a depressed province. It was estimated that the public exhibition of the girls, known as Quintland, increased revenues for Ontario by $110 million over those nine years.

The family shared in some of the riches as well. By the time the girls' father sued successfully to reunite the family, well into World War II, he was driving a Cadillac. Money had also poured in from movie deals, contracts for exclusive interviews, and a series of endorsements that put the girls' faces in almost every kitchen in America -- on calendars, bottles of Karo syrup, and boxes of Quaker Oats. For years to come, no seasonal ritual came or went -- not Christmas Eve, not Halloween night, not Mother's Day -- without glowing newspaper and magazine stories catching readers up with the Dionne quints.