June 4, 2013

Autism’s First Child

Posted in AMT's Faves, Life's Little Moments, My Take on Autism tagged , , , , , , , at 8:54 am by autismmommytherapist

donald triplett golf

“Mommy, who was the first boy with autism?” Zach asks me as he flings more paint on his recyclable art project, intent on making a graveyard out of an egg carton. “I’m not sure” I reply, “but I’ll look it up on Google”, and head upstairs to our computer because I still hate searching for things on my iPhone.

I literally type in “first child with autism” and hit enter, then sit back to see all the various suggestions with which Google will regale me.

I see the title of an article called “Autism’s First Child” which looks promising, so I click on it, and find a piece in the Atlantic written by John Donvan, a correspondent for ABC’s Nightline, and Caren Zucker, a television producer and the mother of a teenager with autism. It is the story of Donald Triplett of Forest Mississippi, who was examined at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in the 1930s, and became the first person ever diagnosed with autism.

Knowing that Zach was intent on painting every single receptacle in his egg carton I decided to read the artfully written and lengthy article, which delved into different aspects of autism spectrum disorders but focused primarily on the life of Donald Triplett. The article painted a picture of a man with autism who is able both to drive, and to play golf.

He has also traveled more extensively than most people, including an African safari, several cruises, and visits to thirty-six foreign countries and twenty-eight U.S. states. The piece also told of a man who became somewhat of a local legend, renowned among his townspeople for identifying the correct amount of bricks used to construct the façade of his local high school.

Throughout the tale of this man’s remarkable life was also the unbreakable thread of the town’s unwavering acceptance and open admiration of his strengths, coupled with their desire to protect one whom they’d deemed their own.

The story had its dark parts too, as evidenced when the authors wrote about the year Mr. Triplett was institutionalized at the age of three, how in his fairly brief tenure at the institution he seemed initially to almost physically fade away. It was written that he’d endured his worst phase there, but that after a year his parents came to reclaim him.

Apparently at the conclusion of the boy’s stay the director could barely be bothered to write any sort of written account of his time there, stating it was probable the boy had some sort of “glandular disease”, and making little note of any progress.

As a mother, I can only imagine what his parents had to have gone through to commit him, in a time even before the false “refrigerator mother theory” had its heyday. After a five day vacation without my kids I get twitchy. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to not live with either of my children for a year.

I also can’t imagine how to survive feeling as if I had no choice.

I hear Zach downstairs bellowing for me to help him inscribe epitaphs on his “gravestones”, and I hurriedly read through the rest of the article, as I truly need to see how it all turns out. I make it to the last paragraph after placating my son with my imminent arrival, and see the last part is dedicated to a description of the “brick incident”, the event which may have solidified Donald Triplett’s claim to fame.

Legend has it that a group of Donald’s high school peers, having heard of Donald’s unprecedented math skills, asked him to tell them the number of bricks comprising the front of their school. Apparently Donald looked at the building and simply threw out a random number, which suitably impressed a group of teen-aged boys, cementing the story in legend.

When asked by the article’s interviewers why he did it, he replied “I just wanted for those boys to think well of me.”

I take a deep breath, close out the article and head downstairs to a thoroughly painted egg carton and child, and engage in one of Zach’s favorite pastimes of telling him a tale. I unfold for him story of a man born a long time ago, one who would later herald the title of the first child diagnosed with autism.

I will share with him that he was extremely fortunate to have loving, well-resourced parents, a mother and father who provided well for him in a time when autism was in the dark ages, parents who were extremely blessed to be able to care for him financially his entire life. I will inform him of all the great things Donald has been able to do, but I will also remind him that not all people with autism have these choices available to them or to their families.

I will tell him Donald’s story, birth to present. But I will focus on the fact that a man born almost a century ago in a tiny town where, like everywhere else, autism was an unknown, was accepted by his peers. I will tell him that this man was and is respected, valued, and admired.

I will hold my son’s paintbrush-filled hand and share with him this is my hope for all people with autism, no matter where they land on the spectrum. He will pull his hand back in a huff and tell me he wants to paint.

But I believe, as many of my stories seem to accomplish with my youngest, that this one will sink in. I hope as Zach grows that any other tale would be the anomaly, that acceptance will be the norm. I wish that for his brother, and the little boy next to me who has his own struggles sometimes as well.

I dream when it come to autism we can all be as open-minded as the residents of Forest, Mississippi.

Follow me on Facebook at Autism Mommy-Therapist


  1. Kathy said,

    Wow, Kim. That was very touching.

  2. Ruth Ormsbee said,

    Hello Kim: A great article really opened my eyes as to what autism is all about. My regards to all. Love Aunt Ruthie

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