Meet Eric: Life with autism

Eric Duquette
Though autism affects as many as 1 in every 110 children in the United States, it also creates its share of heroes.

RIC sophomore Eric Duquette of Smithfield and his mother Judy Duquette (’85, ’91) spoke about life with autism on Oct. 6 as part of Diversity Week at RIC.

When he was 16 months old, Eric had a grand-mal seizure — violent muscle contractions and loss of consciousness due to abnormal electrical activity in the brain. No one has been able to identify what brought on the seizure.

Soon after, he had two petit mal seizures.

Two months later, Judy began to notice changes in Eric. He went from having a 10-word vocabulary to having no speech at all. He avoided eye contact. It seemed almost painful for him. He preferred to be alone. He had no interest in people. He’d walk around children or bump into them as if they were pieces of furniture. He appeared to be deaf, not even responding to his name. And he’d take an object, such as a pencil, and move it back and forth in front of his eyes in a repetitive motion.

At Christmas, Judy said she and her husband “overindulged Eric with about 50 presents.” He didn’t play with any of them. Instead, he piled them. Judy would later discover that giving Eric more than 10 toys at a time produced sensory overload and he would stack them.

By age three, Eric was referred to a speech therapist, but it only traumatized him. “He would throw up all over himself,” Judy said.

One day while sitting in the waiting room of her pediatrician’s office, Judy said “an O.T.” (occupational therapist) noticed Eric moving a pencil back and forth in front of his eyes and blurted out, “Do you know what your son is doing? He’s self-stimming. He has autism.”

Autistic individuals are sometimes known to self-stim (shorthand for self-stimulation). In some cases it helps with thinking or concentration while in others it helps diffuse energy.

“As much as I needed to hear what was wrong with Eric, I was devastated,” Judy said. “All my dreams ended at that moment.”

When the pediatrician heard what had transpired in the waiting room, he disagreed with the diagnosis and threatened to have the O.T. written up. Therein followed numerous medical visits with neurologists and psychiatrists and other physicians, along with a battery of tests and scans, before it was determined that Eric did indeed have autism.

Judy read everything she could on autism, most of which provided little hope. Yet one book became her bible — ”Let Me Hear Your Voice: A Family’s Triumph over Autism,” by Catherine Maurice.

She also received a roadmap for treatment from the mother of an autistic child, beginning with applied behavior analysis (ABA), an intensive program that teaches children with autism how to talk, play and live in a social environment.

The only problem was that Eric had a two-to-three-year waiting period for a therapist. Judy was invited by a mother to sit in on her child’s therapy session so that Judy could learn how to apply ABA with Eric. Judy would become Eric’s therapist, working with him eight hours a day. But first she needed to create a distraction-free therapy room in their home.

“Eric could find anything as a distraction. Even a speck of dust on the floor,” she said. “And it was a task just to get him to sit still. I would open the book and tell him to touch the cow. He’d flip the table, throw things and cry.”

Finally one day Eric touched the cow and Judy rejoiced. She phoned friends and family with the news. More importantly she discovered that Eric could learn, he could follow directions, he could sit in a chair and attend to her for five minutes.

Along with ABA, Judy tried other forms of therapy: diet (no wheat or milk products), vitamin therapy (B6, magnesium, Super Nu Thera, DMG and flaxseed oil), patterning, the Picture Exchange Program (speech therapy), and consultants (Susan Constable of RIC’s RITAP, Daniel Cohen of the New England Center for Children, the Groden Center and Pathways). She also joined what later became the Autism Project.

Within six months of ABA and the Picture Exchange program, Eric began to speak and to reveal just how gifted he was.

By high school, he was an honor roll student and was named salutatorian for earning the second highest grade point average of his graduating class. At his commencement he delivered the salutation speech. He has also delivered speeches at the State House and the Dare to Dream Conference.

A video clip of his high school graduation speech, which also aired on ABC News, was replayed for the RIC audience. In it he said the experts had told his parents he’d end up in an institution. Yet there he stood, after receiving a number of academic scholarships, after being accepted into every college and university he had applied for: Bryant University, URI, RIC and CCRI. At least they got the institution part right, he said.

Eric is now a biology and Spanish major at RIC. He’s a straight-A student who’s been on the dean’s list every semester.

Rather than label himself disabled, Eric defined himself as “different” and read the dictionary definition for it: “Webster’s Dictionary defines ‘different’ as ‘not the same, separate, out of the ordinary, extraordinary.’ I do feel that I’ve had an extraordinary life.”

In fact, some of his ”differences” have been assets:

”His brain is like a computer,” his mother said. ”He scans information and pulls it up when he needs it. At five, he knew facts that most five-year-olds wouldn’t know; for example, the number of seconds in a day.”

But his brain also processes information slower than most people, which means he reads very slowly, she said. Judy informs his professors prior to the start of class that he will need extra time on tests and labs and that he will need a quiet testing area.

Eric studies 12 to 18 hours a day. He gets up early so that he’s fully prepared for class and he spends eight hours a day on campus. “Once he knows what to do, he does it to perfection,” Judy said.

Eric admitted that he has a number of idiosyncracies. ”I worry a lot about disappointing others, especially my parents and my teachers. I tend to take what people say literally. I have trouble understanding sarcasm, body language and cues. After hearing a lecture by DARE on sexual harassment, I avoid girls altogether.”

“He’s ethical to a fault,” Judy said. “He always says thank you. He’s patient and tolerant of others. He never complains, never blames and is never embarrassed about his autism.”

Eric has had an aide with him since kindergarten, but when he started college, he came without one and found RIC to be safe and welcoming. “Professors are always willing to help,” he said. They’re approachable and friendly. They’ve been very kind to me.”

Eric plans to become a pharmacist and will be applying to pharmaceutical degree programs this fall. Jim Gallagher, CEO of CVS, is his mentor.

Judy, too, is using her experiences to better the lives of others. She became a certified behavior analyst in May 2011. She is also a clinical supervisor (serving children with autism) and an educational autism consultant for the Grodin Center. She is also writing a book about Eric.

This event was sponsored by Sue Constable of the Rhode Island Technical Assistance Project in collaboration with the Sherlock Center on Disabilities and the Office of Disability Services.