Donald Triplett, ‘Case 1’ in the Study of Autism, Dies at 89

As he got older, Donald Triplett never stopped having obsessions, speaking mechanically and struggling to hold a conversation. But his life also took a trajectory that would have seemed unimaginable when he was an institutionalized 4-year-old.

He graduated not only from high school but also, in 1958, from Millsaps College, where he joined the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity and studied French and math.

Skills that he lacked as a teenager he gained in his 20s and 30s. He learned how to drive, for instance, and got around using a Cadillac of his own. He took a job as a bookkeeper at the local bank co-founded by his grandfather, the Bank of Forest. With the help of a travel agent in Jackson, Miss., he managed to take vacations by himself to countries around the world.

His remarkable self-sufficiency became a national story thanks to the journalists John Donvan and Caren Zucker, who co-wrote an article about Mr. Triplett’s life for The Atlantic in 2010. That article led to a book, “In a Different Key: The Story of Autism,” which was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction, and a documentary of the same title that aired on PBS last year.

Mr. Donovan and Ms. Zucker drew several conclusions from Mr. Triplett’s story, including that his family’s wealth and social status had been crucial in helping him secure a decent life. But they emphasized above all the importance of Mr. Triplett’s hometown and its roughly 3,000 people.

The community of Forest, they wrote for the BBC’s magazine in 2016, “made a probably unconscious but clear decision in how they were going to treat this strange boy, then man, who lived among them.”

“They decided, in short, to accept him,” they wrote.

Mr. Triplett remained close with his brother, Oliver, who facilitated his interactions with journalists. He died in 2020. Mr. Triplett had no immediate survivors.