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Oct 28
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by Doug Goldberg


In October 2010, The Atlantic Published an article entitled, “Autism’s First Child.”  This article chronicled the first documented case of Autism in medical literature dating back to 1943.  However, this article was really more about the man, Donald Triplett, a 77-year-old Mississippian, and his enviable life.  The author of the article, Caren Zucker, explains it best when she said:

We wanted readers to come away with a critical lesson -- that in real and material ways, the quality of life achievable by a person with autism (or with any disability for that matter) depends significantly on how successfully and spontaneously any society recognizes the humanity of that person in its midst. In short, pity isn't much help. But community is, when community implies connectedness, inclusiveness, caring, and, quite simply, good old-fashioned friendship. 

A timeline of Donald’s childhood would show us:

  • He was institutionalized when he was only 3 years old;
  • In August 1937, Donald entered a state-run facility 50 miles from his home, in a town called Sanatorium, Mississippi;
  • During his time there he sat motionless, paying no attention to anything;
  • Donald’s parents came for him in August of 1938 against Doctor’s advice;
  • Donald’s parents met Kanner the specialist that would ultimately diagnosis Donald’s Autism for the first time in 1938;
  • In 1942, the year he turned 9, Donald went to live with the Lewises, a farming couple who lived about 10 miles from town.  They always set goals for him and pushed him to achieve those goals by using his strengths;
  • Kanner published his findings on Autism in 1943, in a journal called The Nervous Child starting with the story of Donald;
  • During high school he was teased a few times, but he was generally regarded as a student who was enviably intelligent, even brilliant; and
  • By 1957, he was a fraternity brother—Lambda Chi Alpha—at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi.

It’s been a couple of years since this article was originally written and many others have also weighed in on the topic but I felt it was time to bring it up again.  Since this article was originally written a few things have happened, 1) the diagnosis rate for autism is now 1 in 88, 2) the definition of Autism is about to change in the forthcoming DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th edition), and 3) the neurodiversity movement has really started to hit its stride.  Neurodiversity is a concept suggesting that neurological differences be recognized and respected as a social category.  The story of Donald T provides an amazing example that somehow got lost in the almost 70 years since his diagnosis.

Have you ever heard the saying, “those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes?”  In this case it’s a slightly altered version, “those who do not remember what it took to be successful are doomed to never repeat those successes.”  Just as mistakes do not happen on accident either do successes.  The story of Donald T is a beautiful story about one small southern town’s faith in the neurodiversity movement.  Donald T’s story is about much more than autism’s first child. It’s also about neurodiversity long before it even had a name.  While many people read a story two years ago about Autism’s First Child when they reread the story today it’s really about Neurodiversity’s First Child.


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One Response to “Looking Back at the First Autism Diagnosis”

  1. Wonderful article Doug. I like your comment about repeating successes. We need to know our history in order to replicate what was good about it.


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