Donald Triplett was born in 1933 in Forest, Mississippi. He was the oldest son, born to a wealthy family. Donald showed early signs of autism, then unbeknownst to doctors because it had not yet been discovered by the medical world.
Donald’s mother described his behavior as odd, even going as far as to refer to Donald as her “hopelessly insane child”. After a recommendation from the Triplett’s family doctor, Donald was sent to an institution. Unable to care for their son at home, Donald’s parents thought of this as the best decision to get their son the help that they could not provide. The year was 1937, and Donald was only three years old.
In my personal opinion the thought of a child being taken away from their family and all familiarity seems both severe and detrimental to the child’s development. I comprehend that times were different then, but in the grand scheme of things 1937 was not that long ago. Because Donald’s story hits so close to home it is very hard for me to read. I am fiercely protective of my sisters, one of whom is autistic. I can only imagine how hard it was for Donald’s parents to make this decision.
Donald was institutionalized for one year before his parents removed him from the facility. His year at the institution proved futile in finding answers. During this time doctors even went as far as speculating schizophrenia, a dangerous assumption for two very different disorders.
In 1938, Donald’s parents took him to child psychiatrist Dr. Leo Kanner. The Triplett’s were instructed to furnish a list of Donald’s ailments and symptoms. The symptoms described by Donald’s parents were eye opening. Donald’s father listed symptoms such as Donald’s obsession with certain objects, the repetitiveness of words and phrases and wanting to be left in seclusion. Today, these traits would be a red flag for autism – even to the untrained eye. An interesting observation considering that no two cases of autism are exactly the same.
As I read about Donald’s case I think back to my own sister’s childhood. There were definite “red flags” that stood out, but my sister was never reclusive. She was a very outgoing child who loved being around people and getting attention. These days she is not as prone to be the center of attention, but she doesn’t mind people, conversations or questions.
Years would pass before answers were found on Donald’s condition. In 1943 Dr. Kanner published a book titled “The Nervous Child” based on his findings about the autism spectrum. Over the course of time it took to complete the book, Dr. Kanner found ten additional stories similar to his first subject. Because Donald was the first reported and studied case he would be referred to as “Case 1 – Donald T.” in all future medical articles. The remaining ten subjects in Dr. Kanner’s study would be referred to as “Cases 2 – 11”.
This year Donald Triplett will be 82 years old. He still resides in his childhood home in Forest, Mississippi and seemingly leads the life of any other retiree. He golfs, drives and has lunch with his brother weekly. This is a far cry from a boy who was once marginalized as being hopelessly insane.
In Donald’s specific case, he was able to successfully assimilate into society. He went to college, got a job and traveled the world. These are all impressive feats accomplished by a man who is categorized as showcasing the first signs of autism.
Of course, not all cases of ASD are as successful or as carefully documented as Donald’s, but it gives me hope that all levels of ASD (high functioning, low functioning and everyone in between) can have a chance to integrate into society.
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