Autistic student will be class salutatorian in Rhode Island high school

Gina Macris

Eric Duquette didn’t utter a word until he was 5 years old, getting through his early years with a combination of picture cards and sign language.

Eric, now a softspoken young man of 18, can’t remember why he didn’t speak early on.

For him, the past doesn’t matter so much as the future.

Tuesday night, in a ceremony at Bryant University, he will graduate as salutatorian of Smithfield High School, with the second-highest grade point average in a class of 199.

In the fall, Eric will begin his freshman year at Rhode Island College, studying biology in a first step toward what he hopes will be a career as a pharmacist.

Eric’s mother, Judith, says she once thought paying for Eric’s college education would be the last thing she would have to worry about.

He was diagnosed with autism when he was just a toddler. Doctors told Judith and her husband, Dennis, that it was likely Eric would have to be institutionalized as an adult.

Instead, Eric quipped, he’s going to an institution of higher learning.

Judith Duquette says that early intervention — a combination of pre-school special education and home-based behavioral therapy — has made all the difference in Eric’s life, helping to unlock the doors to communication for a child with an inquisitive, analytical mind.

Eric has “never had any problems academically,” she said.

But he has struggled with high levels of anxiety and stress. Eric worries that a glance at a girl might be taken the wrong way, for example, or an accidental bump against another person might give lasting offense.

To negotiate these types of situations, as well as the social context of the classroom, Eric has had a paraprofessional accompany him throughout his four years at Smithfield High.

Eric said he must know in great detail how the teacher arrived at a particular answer to feel comfortable in class. But sometimes he needs to ask more questions than the teacher has time to answer.

So with the help of the aide, he has learned how to let the class move on, with the assurance that he can stay after school to get additional information.

In his senior year, Eric took a hefty load of challenging courses, including calculus, honors physics and a fifth year of Spanish.

“My mom taught me to work hard and never give up,” he said.

When young Eric was not in preschool, either at the Northern Rhode Island Collaborative or at the Metcalf school in town, his mother taught him language with the help of toy animals she set up on a little table in the family’s only bathroom, where there were no distractions.

“We made it our whole life,” she said.

Eric has beat the odds, both because of his innate ability and the support of the people around him, his mother said, including teachers, staff and students, both in the school and in the community.

He said he wants to help people through pharmaceuticals, the same way that his grandfather got relief before he died of cancer a few years ago.

Eric’s mother said parents of children diagnosed with autism should not blame themselves if their sons or daughters do not reach the same milestones.

“It’s not something they did,” she said.

But Judith Duquette, who now works at the Groden Center with young autistic children, says: “There are more Erics coming along."

From The Providence Journal

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