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Remembering Donald Triplett, the first person to be diagnosed with autism

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

And now we're going to remember the life of a man who has been called autism's first child. In 1943, Donald Triplett was the first-ever person to be formally diagnosed with autism. He died last week at the age of 89.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Triplett's diagnosis was the beginning of decades of research into the condition, but his story was largely forgotten until journalists Caren Zucker and John Donvan were researching the history of autism.

SUMMERS: The two found him living in his hometown, Forest, Miss.

CAREN ZUCKER: You know, right away we saw that there was a different thing happening there because when we asked permission to be introduced to him, they warned us not to mess with him in any way.

JOHN DONVAN: But, you know, we asked people to trust us, and they said, OK, we'll trust you. And so they began talking to us about Donald.

SUMMERS: Zucker And Donvan documented Triplett's life in a book and documentary titled "In A Different Key." And what they found was the story of an extraordinary man. O.B. Triplett says his uncle was a joy to be around.

O B TRIPLETT: Don was different. And, you know, I think we have a connotation of different as being negative or bad or whatever, which is really not true. It's not true.

KELLY: Donald Triplett was beloved by his community, and he loved them back in his own special way, like the rhyming nicknames he gave to people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRIPLETT: Hey, Shelby Welby (ph). Hey, Nat the cat. Hey, RC (ph).

R C: Hi, Don.

D TRIPLETT: Hey, Tricky Nick (ph). Hey, Jan with a plan.

JAN: Hey, Don, darlin' (ph).

SUMMERS: He didn't just give nicknames. Triplett also had an affinity for numbers, and he liked to assign them to people as some of his neighbors recalled.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, yeah. Yeah. He gave me a number, 569.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: One fifty four.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Fourteen and seventy three.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Thirteen, 15 - one three one five.

SUMMERS: And O.B. says if you didn't hear him calling your nickname or number, well, Triplett had another way to get your attention.

KELLY: He would snap a rubber band at you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: You know, when somebody shoots you with a rubber band, the first thing it does, you know, is kind of puts a smile on your face.

SUMMERS: Triplett lived a full life with the support of his community, which Caren Zucker says is truly special.

ZUCKER: He was so lucky. And, you know, this is not what happened in the '30s and '40s to people who were different. They were shunned or they were put away for life never to be seen again. And Donald lived the richest of rich lives.

KELLY: In his final days, Zucker and Donvan paid Donald Triplett a visit and reminded him how much of an impact he had during his life.

DONVAN: Caren and I said to him, you know, Donald, we just want you to know how much your story has impacted people out in the world and how much hope you've given them. And Donald, a man of few words, just said, oh, yes, thank you very much. But about 30 seconds later, zing, Caren gets hit in the face with a rubber band. So we kind of think in a way that was his way of saying it's - I'm happy to have helped.

SUMMERS: Donald Triplett was the first person to be diagnosed with autism. He died last week after a long fight with cancer. He was 89 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF KACEY MUSGRAVES SONG, "SLOW BURN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.