The autism community is mourning the recent loss of a true pioneer, Donald Triplett, who was not only the first person ever diagnosed with autism but also made significant contributions to advancing our understanding of this complex condition. His passing has left a void in the autism community, and it is a sombre moment to reflect on his life and the remarkable impact he had.


Donald Triplett


Donald Gray Triplett was born on September 8, 1933, in Forest, Mississippi. From a young age, it was evident that Donald was different compared to other children. His parents, Beamon and Mary Triplett, noticed that he had difficulties with social interaction, communication, and exhibited repetitive behaviours. However, it was not until the late 1930s that Donald was diagnosed with "infantile autism" by Dr Kanner, an Austrian-American psychiatrist who later published the first scientific paper on autism. Triplett was one of the 11 children Kanner described in that paper, in which he was referred to as “Donald T.” under the heading “Case 1.” At age 9, Triplett went to live on a family farm, some 10 miles away from his childhood home. The couple who owned the farm had no children of their own, and they directed Triplett’s energies toward well-digging and counting rows of corn as he ploughed.


Triplett spent four years there and went on to graduate from high school and college, studying French and math at Millsaps College in Mississippi, where he also sang in a capella choir and joined a fraternity. He returned to live with his parents after graduation. As an adult, he was an avid traveller and worked as a bookkeeper at a local bank. Donald Triplett's significance stems from his role as the first individual ever diagnosed with autism. His unique case became the cornerstone for research and understanding of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In the 1940s and 1950s, autism was largely misunderstood, and many experts believed it was caused by poor parenting or early trauma. Donald's diagnosis helped challenge these notions and paved the way for recognizing autism as a neurological condition.


Donald Triplett


Despite the challenges Donald faced due to his autism, he lived a fulfilling life. He graduated from high school, went on to obtain a college degree, and later worked at a local bank. Donald cherished the routine and stability his job provided, which he credited for helping him develop a sense of purpose and contentment. In addition to representing the autism community, Donald also served as an inspiration to others who are autistic. His perseverance and determination demonstrated that autistic individuals could overcome many barriers and achieve personal success.


Earlier in the year, on 15 June 2023, the autism community received the tragic news of Donald's passing at the age of 89. His demise has left a profound impact on those who admired his lifetime of accomplishments and appreciated his role in raising awareness about autism. It is a time of sorrow, as we say goodbye to a monumental figure and a true advocate for the autism community.


Donald Triplett's legacy will continue to resonate in the autism community for years to come. As the first person diagnosed with autism, he contributed immensely to the research, understanding, and acceptance of autism spectrum disorder. His life achievements and perseverance serve as an inspiration to autistic individuals and their families, reminding us all of the potential and capabilities within everyone. While Donald's passing is undoubtedly a sad event, his positive impact and lasting contributions will endure, ensuring that future generations remember him as a trailblazer and an influential figure within the autism community. May his contributions continue to guide and shape our understanding of autism as we work towards creating a more inclusive and supportive society for individuals with autism.