Donald Triplett, the First Person Ever Diagnosed With Autism

(The reason for this photo of an ATM will be revealed later in this post.)


I read Autism’s First Child, an article in the October Atlantic Monthly magazine about the first person diagnosed with ‘autism’ by Johns Hopkin University psychiatrist Leo Kanner, with much curiosity. Now that my son Charlie, who is on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum, is 13 1/2 years old (and 5 feet, 8 inches), he is closer to being an adult every day.


It is tempting to refer to The Atlantic article, by John Donvan and Caren Zucker, as a sort of portrait of a textbook case of autism. After all, anyone who looks even just a little into the history of autism will encounter ‘autism’s first child’ Donald T (for Tripplett) as his early history is described by the Austrian-born Kanner in his 1943 article, ‘Autistic disturbances of affective contact.’ Donvan and Zucker provide more of the facts of Donald T’s life: His parents’ bafflement at his ‘problem behaviors’ that they ‘could not handle’ and an arduous search to figure out what was wrong with their child, are familiar to any parent (myself for sure) whose child has been diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Some aspects of Donald’s story, such as his year-long institutionalization at a state facility in a ‘town then actually called Sanatorium, Mississippi,’ seem almost barbaric to most parents today. Why wrest a young child, and one with a severe disability, away from his or her very own family? Donald’s parents took him home and then brought him more than once to see Kanner, on a long train trip from their home in Forest, Mississippi, to Baltimore.


Such a trip, and, indeed, such a consultation with a child psychiatrist at a time (the 1940s) when such a medical field was at its inception, would not, could not, have been attempted by many families. Donald’s family had resources—his father was a Yale-educated lawyer, his mother the member of the financier family that had ‘founded and still controlled the Bank of Forest’— as my friend Emily Willingham further discusses, these financial and other resources no doubt have played a significant role in Donald’s life. As Donvan and Zucker write, Donald is now 77 years old. He can drive a car, plays golf daily (sometimes with others, though this is primarily when the golf club has organized events), engages in brief conversations, has traveled around the world, and worked as a teller in his mother’s family’s bank. He has not had to rely on state or government resources, as an ‘irrevocable trust fund established by his family pays his bills to this day.’


All things considered, Donald, it could be said, chose the right parents.


So does that mean those on the autism spectrum whose families lack such resources (most of us) are doomed? Are the lessons to be learned from Donald’s life sui generis, applicable only to his particular set of circumstances?


I will be optimistic and hedge a ‘no.’ While it can’t be denied that being financially stable (and then some) can go a long way in securing a good life and future for an individual with disabilities, this is a very limited takeaway lesson from Donald’s story. Elements that have helped Donald live long, well and (as far as one can tell) contentedly include: Living in a small community where he is widely known and his ‘difference’ understood, accepted, and appreciated. Having activities not only to fill the days, but also that involve structured social contact with others. Foresight among those who cared, and care, for Donald’s affairs—that trust fund left to him was, as his younger brother Oliver notes, ‘designed with controls that ensure, as he put it, “some gal wouldn’t be able to talk Don into marrying her and then abscond.” ‘ People took time to think about Donald’s needs and limitations in a very practical way, and to create accommodations based on these.


It’s just such understanding and accommodations that should receive more emphasis in the education of autistic students according to Dr. Peter Gerhardt, the former president of the Virginia-based Organization for Autism Research and someone who is ‘considered among the top experts in the country working with adults who have autism.’ Teaching skills that can enable autistic adults to live as independently as possible—’keeping track of money, asking for directions and then following them, wearing clean clothes, navigating public transport, recognizing a dangerous person, and—of extreme difficulty for most—looking a job interviewer in the eye’—should receive priority.


In the case of my son (who, I should point out, struggles mightily with academics, is minimally verbal, and smarter than any of that might suggest to most people), the focus in his education has long shifted in such a pragmatic direction. I should note that the decision to do so—to start my 12-year-old developmentally delayed boy on pre-vocational training—seemed hasty and a sign that we had ‘given up’ on my son. While we will always seek to expand Charlie’s horizons, my husband Jim and I have found that he seems content learning such practical, functional skills, rather than spending yet another hour on flashcards with ‘the’ and ‘table.’ Charlie has his whole life ahead of him, to learn him, and to grow in (and ride bikes some 20 miles plus at a time)—just as Donald’s story shows.


Donvan and Zucker open their article by noting how much more one hears about autism and about autistic individuals these days, to the point that there seems to be ‘epidemic’ of autism. It is the case that ‘the rate of ASDs, which come in a range of forms and widely varying degrees of severity—hence spectrum—has been accelerating dramatically since the early 1990s, and some form of ASD is now estimated to affect one in every 110 American children’ and that ‘nobody knows why,’ though scientists point routinely to genetics as a cause, while noting influences from the environment (which refers not only to the physical environment, as is often thought to. The labeling of autism as an ‘epidemic‘ is ground to tread cautiously on as, even though there are so many more children diagnosed with an ASD (autism, like my son, or Asperger’s syndrome, or PDD-NOS), we have to take into account how much more we know about autism than when Kanner wrote his article in 1943, when Donald’s parents took him on those long train rides to Baltimore.


Because I have to say, on reading about Donald, I saw not only snatches of my son, but of more than a few individuals I have known throughout the years. 


A long-time friend of my husband’s who is a lifer-long golf-club caddy.


Various teachers and not just of math and science.


Various fellow classmates who all went on to become electrical engineers, technical writers, mechanical engineers, computer programmers. (I grew up in the Bay Area in northern California and, I suspect, many of these fellow classmates now live in and around Silicon Valley.)


After you read about Donald, take a look around—there are more than a few autistic adults out there. While Donald might be ‘autism’s first child,’ I’ll venture to say that, while he is the first we know about, that does not mean he is the first autistic person ever.

Photo by TheTruthAbout.


Nuke P.
Nuke P8 years ago

thanks for sharing.

Terri Straka
Terri Straka8 years ago

I have a 14 yo son who is in the spectrum. His last diagnosis was Asperger's. I always believed he had Aspergers however other diagnosis have been ADD, Anxiety, Mood Disorder (NOS). He definitly has sensory issues and has his whole life. He is so miserable and depressed anymore. I believe hormones are effecting him greatly. He's depressed because he has no friends. I mean not even one!! He constantly isolates himself and I'm worried sick. Any fellow Asperger's people out there that can share personal experience? I'm so worried about him. : (

Julianna D.
Juliana D8 years ago

Very informative!

Philippa P.
Philippa P8 years ago


jane richmond
jane richmond8 years ago

Thank you!

Ben McCann
Ben McCann8 years ago

people with autism view the world as different who have the problem and not themselves, my brother has autistic tendancies which means he isn't labelled but acts autistic. To everyone who lives with people with autism, full respect to you, it is extremely hard to live with them mentally and sometimes physically. x

Ronnie M.
Ronnie Mekler8 years ago

Thank you for all this important information! I'll be passing this along to a group called M.A.S.H. For more info on that group the website is

Grace A.
Grace Adams8 years ago

I am 67 already only one to two years younger than Donald T and I found out just last summer that I have Asperger's syndrome which was misdiagnosed as Schizophrenia when I was seventeen years old. I am fairly good at math and science as school subjects but have trouble getting along with other people.

luca pisaroni
luca pisaroni8 years ago


luca pisaroni
luca pisaroni8 years ago