On April 22, 2017, Donna Williams—also known as Polly Samuel—passed away from metastatic breast cancer. She gained fame after her autobiography, Nobody, Nowhere, was published in 1991. She was the first individual with autism to write an international bestseller—even before Temple Grandin (who published her book, Thinking in Pictures, in 1995).
You wouldn’t have guessed it by her success later on, but the first part of Williams’ life was a bumpy ride. She was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1963—back in the days when autism was neither widely known nor understood and was referred to as “infantile psychosis.” Her parents used words like “feral” and “disturbed” to describe her. She communicated through echolalia but couldn’t string together original sentences until her late tweens, early teens. Her severe language processing disorder also made her struggle to understand speech until she was around nine years old. She failed high school and dropped out at age 15, becoming homeless for a time and working 30 jobs in three years.
Then at age 18, that all changed when a psychiatrist recommended she return to school. She ended up graduating and moving on to the university level, earning several degrees, including a postdoctorate in education.
She then published her first autobiography, Nobody, Nowhere, and followed it up shortly thereafter with another bestseller, Somebody, Somewhere. She wrote a total of nine books during her life. In addition to being a writer, she was also an international speaker, artist, and singer/songwriter.
Then in 2011, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She received a double mastectomy as a treatment, but the cancer later came back in the metastatic form—a death sentence. In spite of this grim diagnosis, she lived the remainder of her life to the fullest, accepting her impending death with grace and bravery. Her husband of 17 years, Chris Samuel, says she passed painlessly on the evening of April 22.
In the announcement of her passing, Samuel says, “Now remember to skip and sing and not care what people think about you whilst you do it, and remember that whilst she’s gone physically we carry her in our hearts now.”