Millsaps Alumnus is “Autism’s First Child”

by Bekah Ervin

(Bekah Ervin)

by Bekah Ervin
news editor

On January 27, a special event took place in the Academic Complex Recital Hall. Two ABC producers and authors of In a Different Key: The Story of Autism gave a short lecture and discussion followed by a book signing. John Donvan and Caren Zucker wrote In a Different Key as a medical and psychological history of autism through “autism’s first child”— Donald Triplett of Forest, Mississippi.

Triplett is not only the first diagnosed case of autism, but also a Millsaps College graduate of 1958. During his time at Millsaps, he studied French and received his bachelor’s degree in the program. He was also involved in Greek life. In 1957, Triplett became a brother in Lambda Chi Alpha’s Theta Eta Chapter. His classmates, friends and fraternity brothers have described him as an “honest man and a friend for life,” according to Zucker. She told of his incredible memory and of how he gave every close friend an identifying number, all of which he still remembers today at age 82. After college, he began to work in his family-owned bank in Forest.

Before Triplett’s time at Millsaps, he was a misunderstood child with an unexplainable disorder. From early on in his childhood, his parents were not sure what it was that made their child so different than average children his age. At this time, autism was not a known disorder and there was little valid explanation for his odd behaviors. Doctor after doctor told his parents that it was his mother’s fault for not giving him enough love or attention when he was born, as was the common “reason” for the behavior of children with this, at the time, unknown disorder.

Luckily, Donald’s parents believed there was more going on and were able to take him to child psychiatrist Leo Kanner of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. Kanner was also baffled by Donald’s behaviors, but eventually identified the behaviors as being “autistic,” and wrote about his findings. In his article “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact,” Kanner refers to Donald as Case 1, Donald T. Many years later, John Donvan and Caren Zucker would come across this in their research and seek to find this “Case 1, Donald T.”

After digging and digging, Zucker was able to reach Donald’s answering machine, and she knew she had found the man she was searching for all this time. Her experience with her autistic son allowed her to recognize many similarities in Triplett’s speech on his answering machine message. They were able to work with Triplett for quite some time and even were assigned a number from him, proving they had become his friends.

The authors found that his hometown of Forest largely embraces Triplett and his differences. Triplett’s neighbors and townspeople even warned Zucker that they would hurt her if she tried to harm Triplett in any way. Zucker stated during the lecture, “I had never been warned in such a way. Donald was very important to the town of Forest and that’s what makes it so special.”

Donvan and Zucker pushed their current producers to allow them to do a documentary-style show about autism and Donald Triplett in particular. After much perseverance, they were able to produce a short six-part series called “Autism Now” on PBS. They began their book and eventually published it on January 19, 2016.

The book serves as a historical novel as well as encouragement for parents with autistic children. Triplett lives on his own, drives his own car, plays golf every day (weather permitting), and travels the world. He has been to more than 30 countries and 28 states. His story serves as an inspiration to parents that worry about their children’s future as adults with autism. Donvan said, “Adult autism is not something that is discussed as often as childhood autism. The book allows insight of what a high-functioning autistic adult can accomplish.”

Donald Triplett attended the event as well. Upon meeting him, he said, “I remember The Purple & White!” To many, Donald represents the shining face of the autism community, proving that those with autism are not so different from those without the disorder.

If you are interested in raising awareness for autism and other disabilities, consider joining the Millsaps College chapter of Enable America, a nonprofit organization that benefits disabled people in Mississippi through fundraising, volunteering, and raising awareness. Enable America strives to develop inclusivity, comfort, and academic understanding of disabilities across the spectrum. Please contact Sarah McLean Archer at archesm@millsaps.edu for details.

About Bekah Ervin (29 Articles)
I am a member of the Class of 2019 at Millsaps College in the capital city of Mississippi. I am from just outside of Memphis, Tennessee and am very excited to get to know my new home away from home.

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