The First Person Diagnosed with Autism



This week a friend of mine gave me a back issue of The Atlantic, which he had swiped from the magazine rack in his dentist’s office. While flipping through the magazine, my friend came across an article he thought would interest me. The article appears in the October 2010 issue and is entitled “Autism’s First Child.” In the article, John Donvan and Caren Zucker describe the life of Donald Triplett, the first person diagnosed with autism.

Autism is a relatively new diagnosis first described in a 1943 case study by Dr. Leo Kanner, a leading child psychiatrist at the time. In the paper, Dr. Kanner documented eleven cases of children with similar characteristics that could not be attributed to a single existing diagnosis. Like the current diagnostic criteria for autism, Dr. Kanner found his patients to show deficits in social interaction and language, as well as display a repertoire of stereotyped and repetitive behaviors. Dr. Kanner described this seemingly new disorder as “inborn autistic disturbances of affective contact.”

The first child Dr. Kanner encountered was Donald Triplett, also known as case 1. The 1943 case study reveals that from an early age Donald did not show an interest in others. He also engaged in stereotyped behaviors, like spinning blocks and jumping up and down, as well as engaged in repetitive verbalizations and echolalia. Furthermore, Donald was found to have an excellent memory and a knack for numbers and mathematics.

Little else was known about Donald Triplett, until Donvan and Zucker’s article. In the article, the authors reveal various details about Donald’s life. For instance, at age 18 Donald was offered a part in Hungarian hypnotist Franz Polgar’s act to showcase his ability to multiply large numbers in his head. The authors also tracked down Donald, now age 77. Currently, Donald lives independently in Forest, Mississippi in the same house where he grew up. He enjoys playing golf and is a passionate traveler having visited approximately 28 US states, and 38 other countries. Although Donald still displays apparent differences, he has thrived in a community that is completely accepting of him.

I spend a great deal of time staying up to date on the latest autism literature and research; however, this was the first article to open my eyes to the history of autism. If you would like to read Donvan and Zucker’s article you can access it here.  Dr. Kanner’s 1943 case study is also available online and can be accessed by clicking here.

References

Donvan, J., & Zucker, C. (2010, Oct). Autism’s first child. The Atlantic, 306(5), 78-90.

Kanner, L. (1943). Autistic disturbances of affective contact. Nervous Child, 2, 217-250.

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