In January, BBC News Magazine ran a profile story on the first boy to be diagnosed with autism. Donald Grey Triplett was born in 1933 and diagnosed in the late 1930s. He was known as "Case 1" in the first paper to define "infantile autism" later simply known as "autism."
The road to Donald's diagnosis was difficult. Doctors didn’t consider him “normal,” and encouraged his parents to institutionalize the withdrawn young boy who wasn't interested in playing with other kids, but could mimic everything he heard (including songs in perfect pitch), and had an impressive memory. When Donald was only 3-years-old, that's exactly what they did.
Donald's parents could have chosen to move on with their lives. But instead, it wasn’t long before the Tripletts decided to bring their son home. Donald's mother made it her mission to help him develop intellectually and socially and become as self-sufficient as possible.
Her commitment to her son was not in vain. Donald attended high school and then college. Today, the 82-year-old still lives in the house where he grew up in the town of Forest, Mississippi. He has friends, he plays golf whenever he can, and he has traveled all across the U.S. and to multiple countries.
"His is the picture of the perfectly content retiree - not the life sentence in an institution which was nearly his lot - where he surely would have wilted, and never done any of those things," the article says. "[Donald's autism] did not go away. Rather, its power to limit his life was gradually overcome."
No, Donald wasn't magically "cured" of autism. "He still has obsessions, and talks rather mechanically, and cannot really hold a conversation beyond one or two rounds of exchanged pleasantries," the article explains. But Donald has lived a life of meaning—and not just because he went to college, or because of his extraordinary memory or unique talents, or because he can drive his Cadillac or travel the world.
Donald's life is valuable because he was given the chance to live it—and in doing so, he made an impact on the world around him.
This is clear when you look at how his entire town has embraced him throughout his life.
"When we first visited Forest and began asking questions about Donald, at least three people warned us they would track us down and get even if we did anything to hurt Donald," the article states. "His school yearbook is full of scribbled notes from classmates talking about what a great friend he is. A few of the girls even seemed a little sweet on him. We learned that he got cheered for his part in a school play, that people regarded his obsessive interest in numbers not as odd, but as evidence that he must be some kind of genius."
Donald Triplett taught the City of Forest a life lesson that they will not soon forget: that a person's worth is not contingent on their intellectual, social, or even physical abilities.
Ephesians 2:10 says: "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (ESV). We are put on this world to be a blessing. When we focus too much on our personal challenges and allow them to rule our lives and keep us from making an impact on the world, we are doing ourselves and those around us a disservice. Our true worth is found in Christ and how we can serve others.
Donald’s life was once considered a burden, but his family and his community recognize him for what he is: a blessing. His story is a testament to what can happen when people choose love and choose life.
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