The Mysterious Case of Donald T., Autism’s First Child

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The Atlantic has an absorbing tale in the current issue about the first person ever diagnosed with autism. The man, now 77, is named Donald Gray Triplett and the story’s authors tracked him down in Mississippi where — 74 years after he was institutionalized for exhibiting introverted behavior — he spends his days playing golf, drinking coffee with friends and watching TV. According to the article:

…Donald appears comfortable with silence, and in a larger sense, content with the life he’s leading, which resembles — with the car and the coffee and the golf and the TV — a retirement community’s brochure version of how to live out the golden years. Donald has freedom, independence, and good health. All in all, life has turned out well for autism’s first child.

The tale is particularly moving because, as the authors note, “within a decade or so, more than 500,000 children diagnosed with autism will enter adulthood.” Back when Donald’s family noticed he was different than other children, his family doctor blamed his oddities on bad parenting. He was institutionalized at age 3 and didn’t enter the medical literature alongside the term “autism” until he was 10. The Atlantic authors, one of whom has an autistic son, traced Donald’s history intertwining it with what we have learned about autism in the decades since. It’s worth a full read.

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