But there was another side to the equation in the hug incident: the neighbor’s lack of education on the character of autism. Had she been more aware of Tony’s condition, and what it might occasionally entail, she might not have felt so threatened. At the very least, had she understood the situation, she could have simply told Tony that she’d like him to let go, rather than hoping he’d read social cues that were invisible to him.
As it was, the whole situation was quickly defused: Tony’s brother arrived and offered both the neighbor and the police an explanation of Tony’s disability, and she declined to press charges. But, as Gerhardt notes, a little more information on both sides might have prevented this misunderstanding in the first place.
Donald lives alone now, in the house where his parents raised him. Enshrined in honeysuckle and shaded by several old oaks, a few minutes’ walk from Forest’s faded business district, the house needs some paint and repairs. Several of its rooms—including the dining and living rooms, where his parents welcomed visitors—are dark and musty with disuse. Donald rarely enters that part of the house. The kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom are home enough for him.
Except for once a month, that is, when he walks out the front door and leaves town.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Donald’s life is that he grew up to be an avid traveler. He has been to Germany, Tunisia, Hungary, Dubai, Spain, Portugal, France, Bulgaria, and Colombia—some 36 foreign countries and 28 U.S. states in all, including Egypt three times, Istanbul five times, and Hawaii 17. He’s notched one African safari, several cruises, and innumerable PGA tournaments.
It’s not wanderlust exactly. Most times, he sets six days as his maximum time away, and maintains no contact afterward with people he meets along the way. He makes it a mission to get his own snapshots of places he’s already seen in pictures, and assembles them into albums when he gets home. Then he gets to work planning his next foray, calling the airlines himself for domestic travel, and relying on a travel agent in Jackson when he’s going overseas. He is, in all likelihood, the best-traveled man in Forest, Mississippi.
This is the same man whose favorite pastimes, as a boy, were spinning objects, spinning himself, and rolling nonsense words around in his mouth. At the time, he seemed destined for a cramped, barren adulthood—possibly lived out behind the windows of a state institution. Instead, he learned to golf, to drive, and to circumnavigate the globe—skills he first developed at the respective ages of 23, 27, and 36. In adulthood, Donald continued to branch out.
Autism is a highly individualized condition. The amount of room the brain makes available for growth and adaptation differs, often dramatically, from one person to the next. One can’t presume that duplicating Donald’s circumstances for others with autism would have the effect of duplicating his results.