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The Life and Times of Donald Tripplet

by Joshua Walburn

The first person to be diagnosed with autism is Donald Triplett. He was born to a wealthy family in Mississippi. His parents Beamon and Mary Triplett described him as an introverted child who did not respond to their gestures or voices. He was interested in number patterns, musical notes, letters of the English alphabet, US Presidents, rhymes and usually answers questions with "yes" or "no" answers.

Triplett had rage episodes and however was unable to associate them with punishment. He was echolalic and had difficulty remembering pronouns, using "you" to refer to himself and "I" to the person he's speaking to.

Don inherited advanced faculties he possessed on his own, including a strong ability to name musical notes as they’re played on a piano and rapidly multiplying numbers using his head. His parents institutionalized him for a year and then took him to John Hopkins in Baltimore to see Dr. Leo Kanner. For three visits to him, they described and asked questions about these manifestations of Don's condition which became the foundation of this scientific term, known as, "Autism Spectrum Disorder."

Prior to Donald Triplett's diagnosis, he was among twelve children labeled “Donald T” described in Kanner's research paper called, "Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact.” This lead researchers to study the heterogenous complexity of autism and was introduced to psychology. Dr. Leo Kanner was criticized by the refrigerator mother theory – an abandoned psychological phenomenon in which he claimed was the belief that autism was caused by the lack of parental emotional warmth.

Very little was known about autism at the time of Kanner, making it simple to estimate the neurodevelopmental condition’s comparison to schizophrenia. Both terms are coined by Swiss psychiatrist Eugene Bleuler. He came up with the word autism, deriving it from the Greek word, “autos (αὐτός)” meaning “self” and schizophrenia from the same language phrase, “split mind (schizo phren, σχίζω φρήν).” Bleuler’s phrase of a “divided mind” becomes the term used to describe what schizophrenia is, referring to thought patterns that’s withdrawn from reality. This features the signs he noted in which includes: hallucinations, delusional beliefs, disorganized thinking and apathy.

Eugene and his colleagues Carl Jung and Franz Riklin integrated Sigmund Freud’s theory of repression with word association assessments. Sanford law and psychology professor David Rosenhan in 1973, tested the reliability and validity of psychiatric diagnoses through an experiment. That involved eight “pseudopatients” to the institutions from coast to coast around the United States and 193 new coming patients to a research hospital to be detected wether they’re false agents. In the late 1970s, the refrigerator mother theory was debunked for the first time when studies on identical twins have the similar genetic components.

Since Donald Triplett was diagnosed, his life took a major trajectory that seemed impossible for most people out of being an institutionalized four-year-old child. In his teens, he was enrolled at a local high school where his teachers and classmates were accepting. In his adult life, he obtained a job as a bookkeeper, learned to drive at age 27 and with help from a travel agent, he spent spare time visiting places from around the world by himself. Triplett also had a hobby of playing golf.

As soon as he got older after his retirement, he gained media attention being the face of the need to study autism in older adults. After his parents passed away in the 1980s, Triplett continued to live in the home where they raised him. Don’s brother Oliver Triplett took care of him as his legal guardian until he left in 2020 and was supported by his nephews. In June 2023, he died at the age of 89. He's featured in a New York Times bestselling book called “In a Different Key,” published by John Donvan and Caren Zucker. Donald Triplett is also mentioned in The Atlantic article "Autism's First Child."

It’s true that early intervention is key to enhanced learning. What allowed Don’s life to take this trajectory was a supportive and nurturing environment. If adults with autism doesn’t have equal access to public transportation nor be supported by a hab-aide or family member, we can’t have whole community engagement. Repetition, structured schedules and extended time is used as an accommodation for many neurodivergent people to develop executive functioning skills. Supportive housing is what many autistic adults should agree if extroverted. Sadly, we live in a society where neurodivergent people are overlooked and we value individualism rather than collectivism. We urge undergraduate alumni with degrees in special education, social work, psychology and sociology to apply for jobs or internships that help meet those needs.

There are parts of who we are that require a lot of help from other people and reasonable accommodations. If none of our needs are satisfied, our identity is not being met by those supportive standards that society needs. If disability services agencies raises their hourly wages, enhances employee satisfaction, higher quality productivity, health insurance benefits, 401(k) funding and vice versa, we’ll be expecting to notice an increase of retention rates in those private businesses. State funding is also covered through PFDs, AAWs (Adult Autism Waivers), and other Medicaid waivers.

Once all needs are met or covered by the services and accommodations special needs people require, we can live a life that’s included and can do similar things like most people.


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