Autism's First Child

VIDEO: Now in his 70s, Donald Triplett was the first person diagnosed with autism.
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In 1951, a Hungarian-born psychologist, mind reader, and hypnotist named Franz Polgar was booked for a single night's performance in a town called Forest, Mississippi, at the time a community of some 3,000 people and no hotel accommodations. Perhaps because of his social position -- he went by Dr. Polgar, had appeared in Life magazine, and claimed (falsely) to have been Sigmund Freud's "medical hypnotist" -- Polgar was lodged at the home of one of Forest's wealthiest and best-educated couples, who treated the esteemed mentalist as their personal guest.

Polgar's all-knowing, all-seeing act had been mesmerizing audiences in American towns large and small for several years. But that night it was his turn to be dazzled, when he met the couple's older son, Donald, who was then 18. Oddly distant, uninterested in conversation, and awkward in his movements, Donald nevertheless possessed a few advanced faculties of his own, including a flawless ability to name musical notes as they were played on a piano and a genius for multiplying numbers in his head. Polgar tossed out "87 times 23," and Donald, with his eyes closed and not a hint of hesitation, correctly answered "2,001."

Indeed, Donald was something of a local legend. Even people in neighboring towns had heard of the Forest teenager who'd calculated the number of bricks in the facade of the high school -- the very building in which Polgar would be performing -- merely by glancing at it.

According to family lore, Polgar put on his show and then, after taking his final bows, approached his hosts with a proposal: that they let him bring Donald with him on the road, as part of his act.

Donald's parents were taken aback. "My mother," recalls Donald's brother, Oliver, "was not at all interested." For one, things were finally going well for Donald, after a difficult start in life. "She explained to [Polgar] that he was in school, he had to keep going to classes," Oliver says. He couldn't simply drop everything for a run at show business, especially not when he had college in his sights.

But there was also, whether they spoke this aloud to their guest or not, the sheer indignity of what Polgar was proposing. Donald's being odd, his parents could not undo; his being made an oddity of, they could, and would, prevent. The offer was politely but firmly declined.

What the all-knowing mentalist didn't know, however, was that Donald, the boy who missed the chance to share his limelight, already owned a place in history. His unusual gifts and deficits had been noted outside Mississippi, and an account of them had been published -- one that was destined to be translated and reprinted all over the world, making his name far better-known, in time, than Polgar's.

His first name, anyway.

Donald was the first child ever diagnosed with autism. Identified in the annals of autism as "Case 1 ... Donald T," he is the initial subject described in a 1943 medical article that announced the discovery of a condition unlike "anything reported so far," the complex neurological ailment now most often called an autism spectrum disorder, or ASD. At the time, the condition was considered exceedingly rare, limited to Donald and 10 other children—Cases 2 through 11—also cited in that first article.

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