The first boy ever diagnosed with autism: Donald Grey Triplett

John Donvan and Caren Zucker

After Rain Man, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, the next great autism portrayal the stage or screen might want to consider taking on is the life of one Donald Grey Triplett, an 82-year-old man living today in a small town in the southern United States, who was there at the very beginning, when the story of autism began.

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in 1933 in Forest, Mississippi, to Beamon and Mary Triplett, a lawyer and a school teacher, Donald was a profoundly withdrawn child, who never met his mother's smile, or answered to her voice, but appeared at all times tuned into a separate world with its own logic, and its own way of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.

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