Studio portrait of Sid Salter. (photo by Beth Wynn / © Mississippi State University)
By: Sid Salter
A highly anticipated documentary film based on The New York Times bestselling book that was the 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist for general nonfiction will debut March 25 at 6 p.m. at the venerable Oxford Film Festival.
Based on the book “In A Different Key: The Story of Autism” by John Donvan and Caren Zucker, the film by the same title chronicles the search by those two award-winning broadcast journalists for the first person formally diagnosed with autism to explore whether that patient’s life held relevance for their own loved ones who also were diagnosed with autism.
Their search brings them to Forest, Mississippi – the home of Donald Triplett, who in 1943 became “Case No. 1” diagnosed by Johns Hopkins University professor and noted child psychiatrist Dr. Leo Kanner as having autism. Kanner examined and treated Don Triplett on three occasions in Baltimore.
Born in Forest in 1933, Don Triplett was the first son born to Beamon and Mary Triplett. His father was a Yale-educated attorney in Forest who was killed in a Hwy. 35 car accident in 1980.
His mother, the late Mary McCravey Triplett, was the daughter of the founder of the Bank of Forest and would eventually become the first female member of the Board of Trustees of Belhaven University, her alma mater. Don’s only sibling, Forest attorney Oliver Triplett, died in 2020 at the age of 81.
The documentary features an amazing original musical score by legendary New Orleans jazz great Wynton Marsalis.
In telling the agonizing story of the search for answers and help for their children by parents and loved ones of individuals diagnosed with autism, we see the remarkable life that Don Triplett has lived in rural Mississippi in a nurturing, accepting community that knew Don was “different” but were mostly unaware of the clinical diagnosis or Triplett’s place in psychological and medical history.
Don’s life is juxtaposed with that of Zucker’s young adult son Mickey, who is loved and supported by his family but who has yet to achieve the secure and accepting place in the world that has the now elderly Triplett.
The revelations that Don has extensively traveled the world – alone by his own choice – that he held a job in a bank that his family founded, and that he had a fairly robust and independent life offers promise to the Zucker family, but that hope is tempered by the hard fact that each case of autism is unique and that there are neither cookie-cutter problems nor solutions.
The film also entertains the hard questions of how race, wealth and privilege change the landscape for autism patients and their primarily family caregivers. There are brief, disturbing scenes of how autism patients were and are mistreated, neglected and misunderstood by medical personnel, law enforcement officers, and the general public. Often, the most prevalent reaction to autistic behavior is unconcealed impatience or annoyance, as if the individual patient has a choice in the matter.
The film also speaks to the misconception of the “autistic savant” made popular three decades ago by the film “Rain Man” and more recently by the hit TV show “The Good Doctor.” In those depictions, the autistic person possesses special powers or abilities like card-counting in a casino or visualizing intricate medical procedures.
While people like both Don Triplett and Zucker’s son Mickey indeed possess some exceptional skills involving mathematics and recall, the “savant” expectation causes some to miss the real magic of their personalities and the real courage exhibited in their lives.
The film brought me laughter, tears and growing insight into a condition that remains a mystery as vast as the human mind and as impactful as the human soul.
Founded in 2003, the Oxford Film Festival “entertains and educates its participants, providing residents and visitors with the opportunity to watch independent films, as well as to meet the filmmakers and learn from industry professionals.”
For more information, contact www.oxfordfilmfest.com.