Donald Grey Triplett was the first person to be diagnosed with autism. The fulfilling life he has led offers an important lesson for today, John Donvan and Caren Zucker write.
The scholarly paper which first put autism on the map as a recognisable diagnosis listed Donald as “Case 1” among 11 children who – studied by Baltimore psychiatrist Leo Kanner – crystallised for him the idea that he was seeing a kind of disorder not previously listed in the medical textbooks. He called it “infantile autism”, which was later shortened to just autism.
Born in 1933 in Forest, Mississippi, to Beamon and Mary Triplett, a lawyer and a school teacher, Donald was a profoundly withdrawn child, who never met his mother’s smile, or answered to her voice, but appeared at all times tuned into a separate world with its own logic, and its own way of using the English language.
Donald could speak and mimic words, but the mimicry appeared to overtake meaning. Most often, he merely echoed what he had heard someone else say. For a time, for example, he went about pronouncing the words “trumpet vine” and “chrysanthemum” over and over, as well as the phrase: “I could put a little comma.”
His parents tried to break through to him, but got nowhere. Donald was not interested in the other children they brought to play with him, and he did not look up when a fully-costumed Santa Claus was brought to surprise him. And yet, they knew he was listening, and intelligent. Two-and-a-half years old at Christmas time, he sang back carols he had heard his mother sing only once, while performing with perfect pitch. His phenomenal memory let him recall the order of a set of beads his father had randomly laced on to a string.
But his intellectual gifts did not save him from being put in an institution. It was the doctors’ order. It was always that way, in that era, for children who strayed as far from “normal” as Donald did. The routine prescription for parents was to try to forget the child, and move forward with their lives. In mid-1937, Beamon and Mary complied with the order. Donald, three years old, was sent away. But they did not forget him. They visited monthly, probably debating each time they began the long drive home to Forest whether they should just take him back with them after one of these visits.
In late 1938, that is what they did. And that is when they brought him to see Dr Kanner in Baltimore. Kanner at first was not sure what psychiatric “box” to fit Donald into, because none of the ready-made ones seemed to fit. But after several more visits from Donald, and seeing more children with overlapping presentations in behaviour, he published his groundbreaking paper establishing the terms for a new diagnosis.
From there, the history of autism would unfold across decades, playing out in many and varied dramatic episodes, bizarre twists, and star turns, both heroic and villainous, by researchers, educators, activists and autistic people themselves. Donald, however, had no part in this. Instead, after Baltimore, he had gone back to Mississippi, where he spent the rest of his life, unremarked upon.
Donald is still alive today, healthy at 82, and a major figure in our new book. When we first tracked him down, in 2007, we were astonished to learn how his life had turned out.
He lives in his own house (the house he grew up in) within a safe community, where everyone knows him, with friends he sees regularly, a Cadillac to get around in, and a hobby he pursues daily (golf). That’s when he is not enjoying his other hobby, travel. Donald, on his own, has travelled all over the United States and to a few dozen countries abroad. He has a closet full of albums packed with photos taken during his journeys.
His is the picture of the perfectly content retiree – not the life sentence in an institution which was nearly his lot – where he surely would have wilted, and never done any of those things. For that, his mother deserves enormous credit. In addition to bringing her boy home, she worked tirelessly to help him connect to the world around him, to give him language, to help him learn to take care of himself.
Something took in all this, because, by the time he was a teenager, Donald was able to attend a regular high school, and then college, where he came out with passing grades in French and mathematics.
The original version of this article by the BBC and can be read here