First Diagnosed Autistic Person In America Passes On At 89

The first person to be diagnosed with autism passed away on Thursday after a long battle with illness. A native of Mississippi, Donald Gray “Don” Triplett was taken to the clinic of renowned psychiatrist Leo Kanner at Johns Hopkins University when his parents, Beaman and Mary, had concerns about some of the traits he exhibited.

At just five years old, Triplett became the subject of Kanner’s groundbreaking 1943 paper, “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact.”

In the paper, Triplett was described as a child with remarkable musical abilities and an extraordinary memory for faces and names. As written in the paper, he “could hum and sing many tunes accurately” at that young age and had “an unusual memory for faces and names.”

However, he also displayed unique behaviors, such as a preference for solitude, a fascination with spinning objects, and a lack of interest in social interactions. Kanner referred to these traits as “extreme autistic aloneness” and highlighted them as defining characteristics of autism.

Despite the challenges he faced, Triplett persevered and went on to pursue higher education at Millsaps College. Following his studies, he worked at the Bank of Forest, a financial institution co-founded by his maternal grandfather. This company is where the 89-year-old dedicated almost 65 years of his life.

Triplett’s memorization skills and his ability to do complex mathematical equations in his head correctly within seconds were seen as astonishing.

“He was in his own world but if you gave him two three-digit numbers, he could multiply them faster than you could get the answer on a calculator,” the Bank of Forest’s CEO Allen Breland said.

Beyond his professional accomplishments, Triplett had a vibrant personal life. He was an avid golfer, a talented church singer said to have “perfect pitch” and a seasoned traveler. Known for his ability to remember and recite nicknames and numbers assigned to his acquaintances, he developed a unique bond with those around him. 

These acquaintances affectionately referred to their assigned numbers as their “Don numbers.”

While newcomers usually saw him as strange and obsessive, his colleagues and family members saw him as a “remarkable individual.”

Triplett’s remarkable story gained wider recognition through the book, “In A Different Key: The Story of Autism.” Authored by John Donvan and Caren Zucker, the book was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. Triplett was also celebrated in a PBS documentary of the same title, reaching audiences across the nation. 

He was also mentioned in several medical journals as he will always be remembered as a resilient individual who defied his limitations and left an indelible mark on the world’s understanding of neurodiversity.