Sunday, September 19, 2010

The first person diagnosed with autism

... was from Forest, Mississippi:
Donald was the first child ever diagnosed with autism. Identified in the annals of autism as “Case 1 … Donald T,” he is the initial subject described in a 1943 medical article that announced the discovery of a condition unlike “anything reported so far,” the complex neurological ailment now most often called an autism spectrum disorder, or ASD. At the time, the condition was considered exceedingly rare, limited to Donald and 10 other children--Cases 2 through 11--also cited in that first article.
Donald today is 77, still living in Forest, after a career as a teller at a family bank. (As one Forest neighbor puts it, "In a small southern town, if you’re odd and poor, you’re crazy; if you’re odd and rich, all you are is a little eccentric.")

The article doesn't dwell on it, but Donald's father had some of the traits that point to autism's genetic factor:
... the former mayor’s son, an attorney named Oliver Triplett Jr. With a degree from Yale Law School and a private practice located directly opposite the county courthouse, Oliver would later hold the position of Forest town attorney and would be admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States. He was an intense man who had suffered two nervous breakdowns, and who could get so lost in his thoughts that he’d return from walks in town with no recollection of having seen anyone or anything along the way. But as a lawyer, he was considered brilliant ....

* * * [Child psychiatrist Dr. Leo] Kanner would always seem slightly perplexed by the intensity of the letter he had received from Donald’s father in advance of their meeting. Before departing Mississippi, Oliver had retreated to his law office and dictated a detailed medical and psychological history covering the first five years of his elder son’s life. Typed up by his secretary and sent ahead to Kanner, it came to 33 pages. Many times over the years, Kanner would refer to the letter’s “obsessive detail.”

Excerpts from Oliver’s letter--the outpourings of a layman, but also a parent--now hold a unique place in the canon of autism studies. Cited for decades and translated into several languages, Oliver’s observations were the first detailed listing of symptoms that are now instantly recognizable to anyone who knows autism. It is not too much to say that the agreed-upon diagnosis of autism--the one being applied today to define an epidemic--was modeled, at least in part, on Donald’s symptoms as described by his father.


  1. “I just wanted for those boys to think well of me.” Wonder how many have been motivated to success by that simple phrase. Excellent article.

  2. That was a remarkable sentiment for an autistic person -- to be aware of, and interested in, the opinions of others, and to cleverly make up something for that purpose.

  3. A moment of insight and intuition? Genuius or protective instinct? My prayers are that you and yours may share many remarkable moments...