First Person Diagnosed with Autism, Donald Triplett, Dies at 89

A Life Well-Lived: Remembering Donald Triplett, Autism’s Groundbreaking Case

Donald Gray Triplett, who made history as the first person to be diagnosed with autism, passed away on Thursday at the age of 89. His name became synonymous with a deeper understanding of autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

A Lasting Legacy at the Bank of Forest

Donald Triplett started his illustrious career at the Bank of Forest in 1958. Located in a quaint Mississippi city, 40 miles east of Jackson, he became an integral part of the community.

According to the Bank of Forest’s Facebook statement, “Donald was a fixture at the bank for almost 65 years, and he will remain a fixture in our hearts for years to come. Every employee has fond stories and memories of him– be it looking enviously at his travel photos, receiving trinkets and postcards, or being greeted with a nickname.”

Pioneering Autism Diagnosis

Dr. Leo Kanner, a renowned child psychiatrist, initially examined Donald Triplett in 1938. In Dr. Kanner’s 1943 paper, “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact,” Donald Triplett was identified as “Donald T.”

This landmark study initially suggested that autism was related to a lack of parental warmth, later known as the “refrigerator mother” theory. However, subsequent research has debunked this theory.

In a Different Key: The Story of Autism, a New York Times bestseller written by John Donvan and Caren Zucker, features Donald’s story and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2017. His life was also the focus of a PBS documentary film.

Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorders

A study published in The Lancet estimates that ASD affects approximately 1 in 160 children worldwide. It is characterised by impaired communication and social skills.

A study from the Asia-Pacific Psychiatry journal highlights that in Asian populations, the prevalence of autism is about 1 in 250 people.

Autism in Healthcare: A Continuing Journey

Donald Triplett’s legacy deeply intertwines with the healthcare community’s understanding of autism. When he received his diagnosis, autism was largely an unknown condition, with limited resources and knowledge available.

The decades since have seen a remarkable evolution in the diagnosis and management of ASD.

Initially, theories like the “refrigerator mother” hypothesis blamed parenting styles for the development of autism. However, modern science understands that ASD is primarily a genetic disorder, potentially influenced by environmental factors. These insights have shifted the focus of healthcare professionals toward early diagnosis and personalized interventions to improve the quality of life for those with ASD.

Tailoring Approaches to Autism Care

Today, healthcare professionals have highly individualized healthcare approaches to autism compared to the past. They now have a variety of interventions at their disposal, including behavioural therapy, educational therapy, and medications, which they tailor to suit the specific needs and challenges faced by individuals with autism. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a method that has gained significant recognition in the field of autism.

ABA focuses on improving specific behaviours and skills through positive reinforcement, and is especially effective in helping children with autism.

Moreover, the healthcare community now acknowledges the necessity of a holistic approach to autism care. This includes not only focusing on the individual with autism, but also providing support and education for their families and communities. Support groups, educational programs for parents and siblings, and community outreach programs are integral to this comprehensive approach.

Additionally, society is increasingly recognising the importance of fostering a nurturing environment for individuals with ASD and encouraging schools, workplaces, and communities to be more inclusive and accommodating.

While Donald Triplett’s story was the beginning of a new chapter in understanding autism, the healthcare community continues to evolve in its approach. The focus is not just on managing symptoms, but on improving the quality of life for individuals with autism and supporting the families and communities that nurture them.

This evolution acknowledges and honors the legacy of Donald Triplett while highlighting the significant progress that has occurred since his initial diagnosis.

A Heartfelt Tribute

The Bank of Forest, where Donald worked for nearly 65 years, expressed their admiration and gratitude. “Seeing his story unfold over the years has been an honour. We are truly blessed to be a small part of his story as Autism’s first child,” the bank mentioned in their statement.

Donald Triplett’s life serves as an inspiration to many. His pioneering case opened the gates to understanding and accepting autism, shaping the lives of millions worldwide.

Our thoughts go out to his family, friends, and the community that cherished him.



  1. Elsabbagh, M., Divan, G., Koh, Y. J., Kim, Y. S., Kauchali, S., Marcín, C., … & Fombonne, E. (2012). Global prevalence of autism and other pervasive developmental disorders. Autism Research, 5(3), 160-179.
  2. Sun, X., & Allison, C. (2010). A review of the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder in Asia. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 4(2), 156-167. 
  3. Donald Triplett, the first person diagnosed with autism, dies at 89. (2023, June 17). Donald Triplett, the First Person Diagnosed With Autism, Dies at 89 – CBS Miami.

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