Donald Triplett lived a long, mostly anonymous life in the small town of Forest, Mississippi. But when he passed away in mid-June 2023 at the age of 89, the whole world took note. That’s because Triplett was the first person diagnosed with autism.
Triplett was born in 1933 and was briefly institutionalized. Though institutionalizing children with disabilities was common practice at the time, it didn’t take long for his parents, Mary and Beamon Triplett, to seek out alternative and, in his case, more effective options. This included connecting with Leo Kanner, a child psychiatrist associated with Johns Hopkins University. In 1943, Kanner published a first-of-its-kind study of 11 children in which he referred to “Donald T.” as “Case 1” in defining the condition he called autism.
Now referred to as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the diagnosis refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. [To review the CDC’s list of signs and symptoms, click here.]
Seeing the Abilities of Donald Triplett
Triplett spent much of his childhood on a family farm before graduating high school and earning a bachelor’s degree from Millsaps College in nearby Jackson, Mississippi. He returned to his hometown, putting his extraordinary math skills to work throughout his 65-year-long career at the Bank of Forest.
“Don was a remarkable individual,” Bank of Forest CEO Allen Breland told NBC affiliate WLBT. “And he kept things interesting.” Breland continued, “He was in his own world but, if you gave him two three-digit numbers, he could multiply them faster than you could get the answer on a calculator!”
Although autistic people often have certain difficulties (i.e. communication, socialization), many autistic people also exhibit exceptional skills, such as with mathematics. These are known as savant abilities. In addition to being a mathematician, Triplett was also an avid golfer, talented musician and dedicated church parishioner. According to his nephew, O.B. Triplett, as reported by the New York Times, Donald Triplett passed away following a lengthy cancer battle.
The Face of Person Diagnosed with Autism
In 2010, The Atlantic published an article titled “Autism’s First Child,” which morphed into the 2016 best-selling book “In a Different Key: The Story of Autism.” Centered on Triplett and his life’s impact, the book was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist and led to the PBS documentary (of the same title).
The early studies of autism, of course, proved to be instrumental in understanding the condition. And while Triplett was the first person diagnosed with autism, the world has since welcomed (and will welcome) many more autistic people. In fact, newly-released research shows a continued increase in the prevalence rate of ASD, now with 1-in-36 children receiving an autism diagnosis.
An evolving shift in the understanding of ASD — thanks to research, advocacy and so on — is also reframing the negative perception of ASD needing to ‘cured’ or ‘treated.’ Rather, movements of “autism pride” and “disability pride” are positively celebrating the unique and purposeful ways individuals who have ASD experience the world and contribute to society. And, certainly, that was the case with Donald Triplett, who contributed to the world and society on many levels. So, we salute the first… as he won’t be the last.
AmeriDisability offers its condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of the dearly departed.