John Donvan is a broadcaster and writer, whose bestselling book, In a Different Key: The Story of Autism, was a 2017 Pulitzer Prize Finalist. He is also host of the Intelligence Squared U.S. Debates, which are heard on public radio and by podcast. During his journalism career at ABC, CNN and PBS, John has served as chief White House correspondent, and held multiyear postings in London, Moscow, Jerusalem, and Amman, Jordan. He is the winner of four Emmys and the Overseas Press Club Award. An occasional story teller with the live onstage program, Story District, John became interested in autism’s impact on families upon meeting his wife, physician and medical school professor Ranit Mishori, who grew up in Israel with a brother profoundly affected by autism. He has two children and lives in Washington, D.C.
John and his longtime colleague, Caren Zucker, have been collaborating on stories about autism since 2000. At ABC, they created the pioneering series Echoes of Autism, the first regular feature segment in network news devoted to understanding the lives of individuals and families living with autism. Their 2010 article in The Atlantic, “Autism’s First Child,” was shortlisted for the National Magazine Award.
A Happy Man (2018)
Role: Independent Filmmaker
“A Happy Man” is the story of a small southern community’s beautiful loving embrace of the boy in its midst who was “different,” no one there realizing that he was also a part of history: the first child diagnosed with autism. Quirky, charming, and in his own way brilliant, Donald Triplett, born in 1933, and now in his autumn years, always had the good fortune of growing up in Forest, Mississippi, a town that chose to support and protect him. Not as charity, but out of true friendship. To townspeople, Donald was “one of us.”
It’s a life in stark contrast to what other children with autism endured during our lifetimes. Before that, autistic kids and their parents were despised by society. Psychiatry declared autism the fault of emotionally flawed women — so-called “refrigerator” mothers. Their children were barred from public schools. They were abused by researchers dosing them with LSD and shocks from cattle prods. They were, ultimately, institutionalized for life, as “hopeless.” Happily, these practices were finally vanquished, but only after decades-long activist effort by their families, resulting in the recognition, today, that children with autism deserve a real place in the world.
These twin narratives — the glowing example of Donald’s long, happy life in Forest, Mississippi set against the long battle to win acceptance of autistic children — make up two of three arcs in “A Happy Man.” The third will be driven by the journalist who discovered Donald’s story, and whose book-length account of autism’s own civil rights movement was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for non-fiction in 2017. Caren Zucker, while serving as the film’s storyteller, will also share the story of her son, Mickey, an autistic man who is incredibly appealing, gentle and vulnerable, and who is still struggling to find his own place in the world. Sadly, acceptance of adults with autism dramatically lags behind the progress made for kids. When they grow up, as the 1 in 68 kids diagnosed with autism, many will still face rejection, isolation and abuse. Zucker will show how, in key ways, Forest, Mississippi figured out the answer: that every person with autism needs a community that will have his or her back from earliest childhood, through to those “autumn years.”
Our hopes for this documentary are for people to see it can be done; acceptance and support for those who are different is achievable. Compassion and kindness are free. It may just take some practice, and a little inspiration.