Meeting ‘Autism’s First Child’

BY Caren Zucker  April 15, 2011 at 10:53 AM EST

Editor’s Note: As part of the upcoming Autism Now series, we asked series producer Caren Zucker to re-introduce us to the story of Donald — the first person ever diagnosed with autism — which she wrote about with her colleague John Donvan in the October Atlantic magazine.

“Autism’s First Child” is a profile of Donald Triplett, a 77-year-old Mississippian whose diagnosis of autism was the first to appear in the medical literature — in 1943.

ABC correspondent John Donvan and I tracked down and wrote about “Case 1 — Donald T,” as he’s been uniquely known to generations of autism experts, to make two points: First, that the current epidemic-sized generation of children on the autism spectrum will soon begin entering adulthood; And second, that the quality of those adults’ lives will depend largely on the response offered by the “rest of us.”

What we found in Mississippi was the story of one such life, which we could trace from childhood into old age. The journey turned out to be replete with lessons on what can work — and what does not — in helping a person with autism reach his potential.

We wanted readers to come away with a critical lesson — that in real and material ways, the quality of life achievable by a person with autism (or with any disability for that matter) depends significantly on how successfully and spontaneously any society recognizes the humanity of that person in its midst. In short, pity isn’t much help. But community is, when community implies connectedness, inclusiveness, caring, and, quite simply, good old-fashioned friendship.

You can read the entire article Donvan and I wrote for The Atlantic and watch a video produced to pair with the story:

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post misspelled Donvan’s name.