First Person Diagnosed With Autism Dies At 89

Photo courtesy of Bank of Forest/Facebook.

John Oyewale Contributor
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Donald Gray “Don” Triplett, the first person to be formally diagnosed with autism, died Thursday after an illness.

A Mississippi native, Triplett was the first subject (“Case 1”) of Austrian-American psychiatrist Leo Kanner’s influential 1943 paper, “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact.” Triplett’s parents had brought him to Kanner’s clinic at Johns Hopkins University for observation when Triplett was just five-years-old. In the paper, Triplett was described as a child who “could hum and sing many tunes accurately” and possessed “an unusual memory for faces and names” before the age of two. Also, he “was happiest when left alone,” “developed a mania for spinning objects” and “when in a room, he completely disregarded the people and instantly went for objects, preferably those that could be spun,” the paper read in part. He also showed an early aptitude for playing the piano, according to the paper. Kanner described Triplett and the 10 other cases in the paper as being marked by “an extreme autistic aloneness.” (RELATED: ‘Horrifying’: Huge Proportion Of Children Pursuing Gender Transitions Are Actually Autistic, Experts Believe)

Triplett would go on to study at Millsaps College and afterward work for almost 65 years at the Bank of Forest, which was co-founded by his maternal grandfather, according to his obituary and a Bank of Forest Facebook post about Triplett’s life and work. Triplett also was an avid golfer, a church singer with “a perfect pitch” and a widely traveled man, per the obituary. He had a knack for assigning nicknames and numbers to acquaintances, which he “fastidiously recalled and repeated” and which the acquaintances termed their “Don numbers,” the obituary revealed. He became the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-shortlisted book, “In A Different Key: The Story of Autism,” by John Donvan and Caren Zucker, and a PBS documentary of the same title.

Predeceased by his parents, Beaman and Mary, his brother and only sibling, Oliver, and his nephew, Cooper, Donald passed away following an extended illness and is survived by other relatives, including his sister-in-law Carolyn, according to the obituary.

Autism cannot be definitely diagnosed through any medical test but rather by observing a child’s development.