Autism’s First Child

Date: 5th February 2016

Posted on: 05-02-2016

According to recent statistics, there are around 700,000 people in the UK living with autism, both children and adults. Autism is a serious, lifelong and potentially disabling condition. Without the right support, it can have profound – sometimes devastating – effect on individuals and families.


Imagine, then, living with autism during a time when there was not yet even a name for the condition. When peers, parents and even doctors could sense that there was something different about you, but were completely unable to place it. During such a time there would have been little, if any, proper support for you as you grew up with autism in a world where the word ‘autism’ did not even yet exist.


This was the case for Donald Grey Triplett, the first person ever diagnosed as autistic.


Born in 1933 in Forest, Mississippi, Donald was said to be a profoundly withdrawn child, never returning his mother’s smile or answering her voice, often appearing tuned into a different world with its own logic. His mother and father’s attempts to break through to him were proved futile, as he showed no interest in playing with other children they introduced to him. And yet, though knew he was listening, and intelligent. At the age of two Donald could sing back carols he had heard his mother sing only once, while performing with perfect pitch. His memory was evidently phenomenal, especially for his age, as he had the ability to recall the order of a set of beads his father had randomly laced on to a string, amongst other abilities.


Despite his acute intellectual ability, the young Donald’s withdrawn nature and inability to communicate lead to his eventual institutionalisation in 1937. This was but the expected procedure at the time, for children who didn’t fit the expected ‘norm’, as was the case with Donald. After some years his parents decided against the doctor’s recommendation to take him out of the institution, and it was from here that they brought their son to Dr Kanner and research into what would become known as Autism truly began.


It is thanks to such research that autism is so widely recognised, understood and cared for globally today. There is still, of course, more research to be done and better understandings to be formed, but we can look to the story of Donald Grey Triplett, aka “Case 1”, and see where it all began.



You can read more of Donald’s story here and find an interview with the man himself today here, where he discusses and reflects upon his experiences.

For more information about autism, The National Autistic Society has detailed statistics and great insights.




The Atlantic


The National Autistic Society


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