Donald Gray Triplett: The First Person Diagnosed with Autism

Donald Gray Triplett as a child | Triplett Family Archives| Courtesy of BBC News

Have you ever thought you were different or had people tell you you were different? Have you ever done things that seemed weird to others?  As the first person diagnosed with autism, Donald Gray Triplett had these experiences. As a young child, his parents noticed he was highly intelligent, but also disconnected from the world. Donald always stayed to himself, and it seemed like he never wanted physical contact with other people. Mary and Oliver, his parents noticed that he could memorize bible verses and recite the alphabet in reverse order, but he always wanted to be alone. Donald’s rising behavior issues and his parents bewilderment on how to handle him led them to seek medical help.1

In August 1937, Donald’s doctor classified him as an overly stimulated child and suggested a change of environment would be helpful. At the age of three, Donald was institutionalized.  Upon arrival, Donald was separated from his parents to live in a facility that was “not made for children like him in mind.”2 As a confused child, he did not know what was going on. All he knew was that he was taken from his home and being placed somewhere strange. Donald’s time in the facility weighed heavily on him, and he faded away physically. While waiting for Donald’s return, his parents did not receive any news of his condition improving; instead, he got worse and stayed confined to himself even more. As they gave up hope, his mother described him as a “hopelessly insane child.”3

Donald Gray Triplett and his parents | Triplett Family Archives | Courtesy of BBC News

Tired of waiting for Donald to miraculously get better, in August of 1938, his parents took him home. However, instead finding comfort, their sadness was only magnified by his behavior. Every day, all Donald wanted to do was spin his toys and watch with fascination the different musical notes, numbers, and pictures of the states. To Donald, this type of play was the only thing that mattered; his parents were just another part of the scenery. His father stated that he appeared to be oblivious to everything around him, like he was living in his own little world. It did not show any affection for his parents. Life for Donald and his parents was hard and it continued to get harder each day. His parents were at a loss and didn’t know what to do. Things got worse as Donald started throwing intense temper tantrums if his daily routine was disturbed. He became unresponsive, and if someone called his name or asked him a question, he would not answer or give one word answers. A highly intelligent boy, Donald had a lot of issues in expressing himself.4

In October 1938, frustrated with the digression of Donald’s behavior, his dad asked Dr. Kanner, a psychiatrist at John Hopkins Hospital, for help.5  Donald’s dad wrote the doctor a thirty-three page letter describing in detail every action and emotion Donald displayed.6 Dr. Kanner met Donald for the first time in Baltimore in 1938. He noticed that Donald did not acknowledge him but moved straight to the toys. This led him to try something different, something that might finally get Donald to react with some emotion. Dr. Kanner poked Donald with a pin to evaluate whether Donald showed any reaction toward the pain. Donald’s reaction was telling. Dr. Kanner could see that Donald did not like the pain, but he did not care any more or less for the doctor, because he was indifferent to what was going on. Dr. Kanner believed Donald could not attach the pain to the person who inflicted it. Throughout his visit with the doctor, Donald was indifferent to the doctor’s presence as if he was just furniture in the room. After two weeks, Dr. Kanner eliminated schizophrenia, a disorder he originally suspected Donald had. Finally, four years later, he wrote to Donald’s mother to inform her that Donald had autistic disturbance of affective contact.7 Nobody could to change the fact that Donald had this disorder. His autism led Donald to experience anxiety and sensitivity to sound, as well as to have learning disabilities. His actions and words were repetitive, and he had trouble understanding people’s emotions. The only option for Donald was to take it a day at a time as he found support through life’s challenges that came with this diagnosis.

Donald Gray older, golfing | Triplett Family Archives | Courtesy of BBC News

Today, Donald  leads a normal life coping with his autism. He lives alone in his childhood home. He still has issues socializing, but he came out of his shell to drive and golf. And, in 1957, he even pledged a fraternity, Lambda Chi Alpha, which surprised lots of people. Donald has traveled to 36 countries and 28 U.S states.8 Donald proved he would not let his autistic disorder keep him from living life. People with autism still face stigmas today. Donald stands as a hero, he faced numerous obstacles. Even while coping with autism, he was able to still live his life. Have you ever thought you were different or had people tell you, you were different? Have you ever done things that seemed weird to others? Everyone faces these questions in their life, and at some point, everyone can say that they have felt different before. Donald illustrates how to not let your difference define you. Any life is worth living no matter the difference and disorder.

  1. Kimberly Maich and Carmen L. Hall, Autism Spectrum Disorder in the Ontario Context: An Introduction (Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press, 2016).
  2. John Donvan and Caren Zucker, “Autism’s First Child,” Atlantic 306, no. 3 (October 2010): 81-82.
  3. John Donvan and Caren Zucker, “Autism’s First Child,” Atlantic 306, no. 3 (October 2010): 82.
  4. Christine D. Shoop, “Examining Maternal Psychological Recollections of Children Diagnosed With Autism Spectrum Disorders,” PhD diss., Walden University, 2016,
  5. Britannica Biographies Encyclopedia, 2012, s.v. “Triplett, Donald Gray,” by Richard Pallardy.
  6. John Donvan and Caren Zucker, “Autism’s First Child,” Atlantic 306, no. 3 (October 2010): 85.
  7. John Donvan and Caren Zucker, “Autism’s First Child,” Atlantic 306, no. 3 (October 2010): 85.
  8. John Donvan and Caren Zucker, “Autism’s First Child,” Atlantic 306, no. 3 (October 2010): 88-89.
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39 Comments

  • Donald Triplett was able to live a prosperous life with Autism. Autism has many stigmas that surrounds it. These stigmas can affect the individuals with Autism by making them feel inferior. But Autism is just a disorder that they have, they are people who have wants and needs. Donald had a lot of trouble expressing himself and even though he loved his parents; he did know how to show any emotion. He did his best and he is living his life to the fullest.

  • I had a friend who was diagnose with autism as well. He was extremely nice and honest with people. It bothers me to see how some people could be ruthless and insensible towards others that have social-interaction difficulties. That’s how Donald Gray felt around new people, because he noticed that more people would look and talk to him in a different manner. Therefore, he became more disconnected to everyone. I enjoyed reading this article, and I hope more people start treating everyone in the same way as they want to be treated.

  • I found this article interesting learning about the first person to be diagnosed with autism. I’m sure trying to find out information about his condition at the time and the judgment his family faces was extremely tough. I’m glad he overcame the odds and still managed to live a good life. He may have struggled in the beginning but to be traveling the world his life, I would say his autism didn’t get in the way of anything.

  • I really enjoyed reading this article. It is a sad story to know the things that Donald had to go through to finally be diagnosed with autism. It would have been so hard for both the parents and Donald because it was such an unknown thing at that point of time and people wouldn’t know how to assist Donald with this condition. It would have been difficult with anyone that was the first to be diagnosed with a medical condition.

  • For a child of three to be institutionalized has to be terrifying, but at the time no one knew better or what to make of his symptoms and fixations. The classic disconnect between his surroundings and what he chose to fixate on at the time is understandably frustrating for the parents, especially when mixed with wild temper tantrums when interrupted. Autism is a complex disorder, and I’m grateful the medical community has a better understanding of the condition. There is no cure, and there is still no agreed upon cause from Autism, but many therapies and early intervention methods are now in place to help these children grow up and have fulfilling lives.

  • My psychology book actually briefly talks about Donald Gray Triplett. It’s weird that not so long ago autism wasn’t even a term. In my mother’s medical textbook, there was a page- at most on autism and this was roughly thirty years ago. Now there are so many books on the topic of autism. It’s very sad to hear that Donald and his family have endured so much and faced every kind of judgment thrown at them. Yet it’s also incredible how we’ve learned so much from him and his family and that people today with autism have it a bit better than back then.

  • This was such an interesting read! As someone who has a family member with Autism, it was so cool to learn about this disorders origins. It was crazy to know that his parents just expected him to get better when coming home because nobody was aware that this disorder existed. I’m sure it was a huge struggle for Donald’s parents to go through, since they didn’t have access to what we have now to handle children within the spectrum. Overall, this article was well written and I had fun reading about the first child with autism.

  • It was interesting to learn about the first child that was diagnosed with autism. It is sad to know what Donald had to go through in order to find out and get diagnosed as autistic. Through Donald’s diagnostic today we are able to have a better understanding of autism. I am glad that Donald was able to live a long life and do many things normal people do such as golf and travel. Donald definitely did not let his uniqueness keep him from living his life.

  • In my opinion, a person must thank God for the grace of health that he has given us. A person does not feel this grace except when he sees people suffering from illness.
    Donald was determined to overcome part of his illness and live a quasi-normal life. Autism is a strange disease that separates the person from the world to live in his own world, yet they have great intelligence compared to natural humans.

  • I really enjoy learning about the firsts of things and knowing that Donald Gray Triplett was the first person diagnosed with autism. It is heartbreaking to hear that his parents had to go through the struggles and pains of their son every day. This aspiring article took his story to heights of overcoming the social awkwardness and lack of feelings to enjoying life as a family.

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