The Mississippi man was the world’s first patient to be clinically diagnosed with autism.
Donald Gray “Don” Triplett of Forest, Mississippi was for the whole of his life “different.” But like many who are different, Don quietly transformed those differences into something truly special.
Triplett, 89, died peacefully at home in Forest on June 15 following an extended illness. He was a lifelong resident of Scott County. Don was born on Sept. 8, 1933, and his parents, Beaman and Mary Triplett recognized early in Don’s life that he was in many ways different. But they worked diligently to equip him with the means to achieve a happy and productive life.
Remarkably, they did so even though Don would later be confirmed as the world’s first patient to be clinically diagnosed with autism. The Autism Research Institute defines autism as “a developmental disorder with symptoms that appear within the first three years of life. Its formal diagnostic name is autism spectrum disorder. The word ‘spectrum’ indicates that autism appears in different forms with varying levels of severity. That means that each individual with autism experiences their own unique strengths, symptoms, and challenges.”
Don’s redemptive, fascinating sojourn with his family and Mississippi hometown was chronicled in a book that was the 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist for general nonfiction “In A Different Key: The Story of Autism” by John Donvan and Caren Zucker. A New York Times bestseller, the book gave rise to an award-winning documentary film with the same title.
The book and film tell the story of the search by Donvan and Zucker, both award-winning broadcast journalists, for the first person formally diagnosed with autism to explore whether that patient’s life held relevance for their own loved ones who also were diagnosed with autism.
Their search brought them to Forest to meet Don Triplett, who in 1943 became “Case No. 1” diagnosed by Johns Hopkins University professor and noted child psychiatrist Dr. Leo Kanner as having autism. Kanner examined and treated Don on three occasions in Baltimore, where Don’s father took him seeking help and answers.
His father, Beaman Triplett, was a Yale-educated attorney in Forest who was killed in an automobile accident in 1980. His mother, the late Mary McCravey Triplett, was the daughter of the founder of the Bank of Forest and would eventually become the first female member of the Board of Trustees of Belhaven University, her alma mater.
Don’s only sibling, Forest attorney Oliver Triplett, died in 2020 at the age of 81. Oliver facilitated the interactions between Don and the visiting journalists. Oliver was a strong positive force in his brother’s life.
The book and documentary film captured the remarkable life that Don lived in Forest – a nurturing, accepting community that knew Don was “different” but was mostly unaware of the clinical diagnosis or Triplett’s place in global psychological and medical history.
The revelations that Don extensively traveled the world – alone by his own choice – that he held a job in the bank that his family founded, and that he had a fairly robust and independent life offered promise to other families dealing with the unique realities of autism.
Many in Forest contributed their memories and experiences to the production of the book and film that told Don’s story – a fact that pleased him. Don was a part of the fabric of Forest and the townspeople in great measure protected him from those who were mean or intolerant. That’s not to say that Don was not fully capable of fighting his own battles.
Don was a graduate of Forest High School and Millsaps College. He was an avid golfer and loved his interaction with friends in his coffee club, fellow church members, and colleagues and customers at Bank of Forest.
Over the course of his life, Don assigned nicknames and numbers – which he fastidiously recalled and repeated – to many he encountered. Some said the assigned numbers were based on Don’s assessment of the person’s prospects of going to Heaven. Most of those friends proudly remember their “Don” numbers and the nicknames he gave them.
I will remember Don on the golf course. On every shot, the waggle was interminably long, complex, and usually included a hop or two – but his shot always flew straight down the fairway.