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Saturday, December 23, 2023

The Luck of Donald Triplett

At NYT, Maggie Jones remembers Donald Triplett.  The first person to have a formal diagnosis of autism, Triplett passed away this year.  
His mother was loving and determined, and she was from a prominent family in Forest, Miss. Her father was a founder of a local bank. Beamon was a top lawyer. They had money, and they had connections. In his law office soon after Donald came home, Beamon dictated a 33-page letter about his son’s medical and psychological history, his behaviors, aptitudes and challenges, to Dr. Leo Kanner, one of the world’s leading child psychiatrists, at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Kanner met with the Tripletts and spent two weeks observing Donald, whose history and constellation of behaviors didn’t fit anything from the textbooks or the patients he had treated. Over the next few years, Kanner saw 10 more children who were similar to Donald in their “powerful desire for aloneness and sameness,” Kanner wrote. His article on what became known as autism was published in April 1943. Donald T. was Case No. 1: the first child formally diagnosed with the disorder.

Back home, Donald’s mother had pushed the public elementary school to allow him to attend, as Caren Zucker and John Donvan detail in their book, “In a Different Key: The Story of Autism.” He eventually graduated from high school and went on to a nearby college.

That was in stark contrast to the outcomes for many others at the time. There was no federal legislation mandating that children with disabilities had the right to public education until the 1970s. It would take years longer for the public to understand, through writers like Temple Grandin, that many people with autism had particular talents and intelligences and that the disorder was not rare. In the United States today, about one in 36 children have been identified with autism spectrum disorder, according to the C.D.C.

Donald Triplett had something else going for him.  He was white.  If he had grown up as a poor black child in 1940s Mississippi, his outcome would have been grim.