A Personal Journey Covering Autism 'In a Different Key'

Former "Nightline" correspondent John Donvan and producer Caren Zucker spent 15 years reporting on autism.
7:09 | 01/20/16

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Transcript for A Personal Journey Covering Autism 'In a Different Key'
It is the diagnosis that changed one person's life and the course of medical history. The first diagnoagnosed case of autism, a life forever changed and one mother's whose journey helped millions of people and children who followed. Reporter: You would never know it but this man helped make history in the anals of medicine he's known as case number one. His name is Donald triplet. In 1943 he was the first person ever diagnosed with autism, the brain disorder that affects verbal and social interaction. And in many ways, his journey from despair to hope mirrors the history of autism itself. How are you? I'm all right. Reporter: Finding Donald was the culmination of 15 years of reporting for "Nightline" correspondent John donvan and producer Caren Zucker. Reporter: This little boy is named Jake. Reporter: Among the first journalists to cover autism on network television, they began in 2001 with Jake, this little boy undergoing what was then a relatively uncommon therapy called applied behavior analysis, or aba. What do you call this little bit of progress? A miracle? No. Because this is autism. Jake. Whoa. You're the best. And hard work has to take the place of miracles. Reporter: And they found what some parents refer to as hope in unlikely spots, like on this beach in San Diego where children with autism were finding some solace in learning how to surf. And it's about the point they're starting to paddle the first unwilling child into the swelling sea that you want to ask, is this really a good thing to be doing to these kids? Whose idea was this anyway? Reporter: They explored the private thoughts of a young man with autism looking for love. Do you like her? I said I love her. Oh, you love her. But there's a problem. She don't love me back. She doesn't love you back. Love unrequited, that's what's been weighing on Paul. I just was rooting for him so hard so get what he wants, which is a girlfriend and love and companionship and also seeing just how hard it was for him to get that. Our book is based here. Reporter: Arm we'd their scripts the duo have turned their first drafts of autism history into a comprehensive book "In a different key, the story of autism." Your book is really a chronicle of a labor of love. "In a different key" is a story of all of these unsung heros who took their love and mobilized, literally, and any parent can relate to that. Reporter: And that first child, case number one, Donald triplet's mom Mary was a steely advocate for her son, removing him from a harsh institution and refusing to let him be marginalized. She was keeping up conversation, feeding him language all of the time. A boy who didn't really have much language and because of that, ultimately language began to come to him. Yeah, better late than never. She taught him how to drive. Yeah. Kind of breathtaking. In what way was that an example of parental love, driving this whole evolution of our understanding of autism? It's never giving up. It's never taking no for an answer. He was 27 years old, I think, when he first learned how to drive. She was going to do everything she could in her power to give him a life. Reporter: And at 82 Donald today is still an enduring testament to his mother's love, a theme common throughout Zucker and donvan's "Nightline" stories. People ask all the time, looking back was it worth giving up your law practice, moving your house, relocating again. And 90% of the words that he has we taught him. So how much is a word worth, how much is one word worth? Every word is priceless. Reporter: The intimate access the pair received to these remarkable families was no accident. I have a 21-year-old son, Mickey, who has autism. And when he was first diagnosed I. Didn't know where to start. And as soon as I hit the ground running with him, I thought I have to just keep figuring out what's out there. And I have to share it with the world. Like a true journalist. It was a little bit hard to say we want to do stories about autism, stories about what? About autism. It was only 16 years ago but really a lot has changed in the last 16 years. "Nightline" was the only show who would do it. We didn't want for people to look for miracles. We wanted to show them what was real out there to help their family. Reporter: Covering autism, organic transition from Zucker immersed in the neurological disorder every day with her son. But donvan had a very different journalistic background. Tell me about the evolution for you, of, you know, dashing foreign correspondent, you know, out on every breaking news story, to basically channeling your thoughts and your reporting towards one single topic. You can't do a story about a person with autism without sitting down and becoming -- forming a relationship. And in the beginning, I didn't know how. So it was a very big switch from action to very, very personal and intimate with somebody who I had to travel more than halfway to them to understand. What are the future chapters in the history of autism? Adults. We have not looked at adults. As a society we've more or less, when these kids are kids let's give them an opportunity to have a great adulthoods. And then they turn 21 and all of that sort of goes down the drain in a lot of cases because people need continuing help but where are they? They're living at home with their parents often and for those 40 years after school, the person with autism has really not gone anywhere, not done anything. Did you have a goal going into the book? Caren, as a member of the community, at that time starting out you had a little boy, now you have a man -- I choke up over this. It's been a big -- What makes you emotional? Her kid. I know that Caren's always said what she wants is when her kid, now a man, is out there in the world, that she won't be the only one who has his back, that it will be everybody -- excuse me -- and she wants this book to get people who read it to be willing to be those people, to be there for her son. So I hope we did it. Reporter: For "Nightline," I'm juju Chang in New York. Our thanks to juju, John, and Caren for that powerful story.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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