Case #1 – Donald T.

Donald Triplett, the first autism patient in the U.S.

No, not him.

Donald Triplett was born in Mississippi in 1933 to a well-to-do family in the banking business. From the very beginning, he was happiest when left alone and didn’t respond to other people, even his parents. He refused to learn to ride a bicycle or go down a playground slide. By the age of two, he could count to 100, recite the alphabet forwards and backwards, and name every U.S. president and vice president. He tended to repeat phrases incessantly, loved to spin toy tops and other things on the floor, and liked to line up objects in strict sequences. He was fascinated by numbers and was able to quickly multiply large numbers in his head.

Clearly there was something unusual about Donald, but no doctors had been able to provide any help or explanation. Those of us studying Donald today are able to easily recognize many characteristics of autism, but at that time autism wasn’t even a condition known to anyone in the medical field.

When he was three, the family doctor convinced his parents to commit Donald to an institution, believing that a radical change of environment would help him. His parents were allowed to visit him only twice each month. In this strange new place and deprived of familiar surroundings, Donald withdrew to the point of barely eating, sat in a fixed position for hours paying no attention to anything, and developed a habit of nodding his head from side to side. The institution’s director believed Donald had some sort of glandular disease and protested when the Tripletts decided to take their son home one year after his arrival.

In 1938, his parents took him to the Children’s Clinic in Baltimore to be evaluated by Dr. Leo Kanner, a pioneer in the field of child psychiatry in the United States. A Ukranian Jew, Kanner immigrated to the U.S. in 1924 by way of Berlin, where he went to medical school and had a practice. Kanner wrote the best-selling and first child psychiatry textbook published in English, titled Child Psychiatry.

Donald T. became the first of eleven children in Kanner’s study, which led to the 1943 publication of his landmark paper, “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact.” Kanner studiously described his highly intelligent patients who also displayed a powerful desire to be alone and an obsessive insistence on things remaining the same. Until this time, the children would have been considered feeble-minded, idiots, imbeciles, or schizophrenic.

The parents of the children Kanner studied described them as self-sufficient, happiest when left alone, acting as if others weren’t there, perfectly oblivious to everything around them, giving the impression of silent wisdom, failing to develop the usual amount of social awareness, and acting as if almost hypnotized.

Kanner was particularly struck by their inability to relate to people and objects in an ordinary way. For example, all the children walked into the examination room and immediately focused on toys or other objects in the room, but didn’t pay any attention to the people present. They were aware of others in the room, but they gave them as much regard as the furniture. One child exhibited fear of a pin that pricked her but not of the person holding the needle.

In group settings, the children would remain on the periphery of the group or altogether alone, but quickly learned the names, hair color, and other specifics about their peers. They exhibited astounding vocabulary and excellent memory, but were somewhat clumsy.

One interesting common denominator was that all the children were born to highly intelligent families. In addition, they all had strikingly intelligent facial features that gave the impression of serious-mindedness and anxious tension when in the presence of others.

Kanner diagnosed the children in his study with what he called early infantile autism, which was later simplified to autism.

Whatever happened to Donald Triplett after Dr. Kanner’s study?

When he was nine years old, Donald parents arranged for him to live with a nearby farming couple. He attended a country school and was put to good use around the farm. His fascination with numbers was used to calculate the depth of a well and count rows of corn. His parents visited often. After four years, Donald returned home and went to high school in his hometown. His peers and teachers viewed him as a genius and, fortunately, were very accepting and protective of him. After graduating he attended Millsaps College and earned a degree in French, then returned home and worked as a teller in the family bank. Eventually he learned to drive, play golf, and travel the world. He is now 85 years old. More about Donald’s long, happy, remarkable life is available here.

As autism’s first patient, Donald has shown us that it is possible to thrive in spite of a terribly rough start in life. It’s undeniable that autism creates roadblocks that seem insurmountable and that many don’t understand. But autism doesn’t have to be the end of the road. If we allow it, autism can be the vehicle for an extraordinary journey.

Donald Triplett, age 85


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