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Donald Triplett, by Helen Wall

Helen Wall is a freelance writer and mother who previously worked in the healthcare sector.



By Helen Wall

ASDs, we’re pretty certain, have been around for a very long time. While we still don’t understand it fully, we can recognize it when we see it. Undiagnosed autistic individuals from the past — according to modern speculation — include:

  • Hans Christian Anderson
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Michelangelo
  • James Joyce
  • Thomas Jefferson

And a host of others. Less celebrated individuals whom modern commentators now believe to have had ASDs include “The Wild Boy Of Aveyron” and a host of other children — many of whom were, at the time in which they lived, sadly considered to be too “devilish” or otherwise aberrant to join society. Often, they were treated with appalling cruelty. Given that ASD children and adults are today still met with bullying and incomprehension from society at large, it may come as a pleasant surprise to learn that the first “officially” autistic person — Donald Grey Triplett — has led an extraordinarily happy life.

Donald Grey Triplett
Donald Grey Triplett was born in Mississippi in 1933. His parents, a lawyer and a schoolteacher, noticed early on that their child was different. He would not heed his mother’s voice, would not respond to her smile, and, while apparently quite content, seemed “tuned in” to a different world. His use of the English language, when it came, was eclectic, and he was deeply withdrawn. While he echoed speech, he rarely responded to it in his own way. He demonstrated an extraordinary memory, able to repeat entire songs word for word and with perfect pitch after only one hearing. His parents, however, loved him dearly. They did what they could to help him to love himself, as well, despite what were then seen as “abnormalities.” However, the state did not share their view. Medical opinion at that time had it that children who were as far from neurotypical as Donald was should be sent to an institution — and their parents were told to forget about them. Donald was duly institutionalized, but his parents did not forget him.

Burgeoning Diagnosis
Despite being warned not to by doctors, Donald’s parents visited him each month — each time debating disobeying the best medical opinions of the time, and bringing their son back home with them. In 1938, they did precisely that. Perhaps feeling guilty about removing their child from what they’d been told was the best medical facility for him, they took Donald to see Dr. Leo Kanner — a Baltimore psychiatrist — to see what he could do. Kanner was simultaneously stymied and fascinated by Donald. He began to work with Donald and (after a while) other children who presented in a similar manner to Donald. Before long, he had the basis of a paper which established the terms for the earliest diagnoses of autism. This paper was published in 1943, and our knowledge about ASDs has grown and deepened ever since. Donald was the pioneer child to which all modern people with ASDs owe their diagnosis — and the support and understanding which (hopefully) comes with it.

Care in the Community
Donald, however, does not appear to have let his pioneer status go to his head. After the publication of the paper, Donald’s life in Mississippi with his parents continued as usual — and, by all accounts, it was a very happy life. Donald experienced a kind of acceptance and love from his parents and the members of his community which many autistic children in this supposedly more enlightened age still struggle to receive. Donald — now in his mid eighties — is a perfectly content individual, who leads a rich and fulfilling life. Certainly, he may never have gone on to get any degrees, run any businesses, or otherwise do the kind of things that his peers did. However, he has travelled extensively — not just in the United States, but worldwide. And he has enjoyed his travels. Donald is now elderly, but he is also happy, and healthy, and lives an enviably comfortable lifestyle. He drives a Cadillac, plays golf, and is (crucially) surrounded by a community which knows and loves him. Donald’s acceptance by his community is thought by most to be the major factor behind his happiness and success — and it’s a testament to the power of tolerance. A lesson we very much need to relearn in an increasingly intolerant world.