Judy Duquette of Smithfield, Rhode Island, clearly remembers when in 1993 her then 18-month-old son began changing.
“Until then, it looked like things were going well for Eric,” said 48-year-old Duquette in a telephone interview. “He’d been saying about 12 different words and suddenly around 18 months those words were gone. He began having poor eye contact, wouldn’t point to things or engage us, and had poor coordination. He lined things up. He would pile his toys into a mountain in his room and had little interest in playing with them.”
She described other behaviors: “He had no imitation skills and had difficulty waiting, sitting, and attending. He had little interest in other children. He had self-stimulatory behaviors like jumping up and down and flapping his arms. He seemed deaf-like and had difficulty following directions.”
When Eric was almost 4, a physician diagnosed autism. A National Institutes of Health website states that autism causes “severe and pervasive impairment in thinking, feeling, language, and the ability to relate to others.” Its severity ranges widely over a spectrum. Said Duquette, “After the diagnosis, I saw a newspaper article about a woman running a support group (for mothers of children with autism). One mom there was talking about her in-home program. She kept her child engaged all day and I thought I could do it, too.”
The woman’s program was similar to one Duquette would read about in a book called “Let Me Hear Your Voice,” in which a mother claimed “triumph” over autism in her two children by, in part, engaging them in purposeful interaction every waking hour.
“But to do this,” said Duquette, “you had to have a distraction-free environment. For the most part, we homeschooled, but I also sent him to public school. He was engaged all day long. It was hard to do and there were many days I cried and he cried.”
When engaging her son, Duquette broke down learning tasks into small steps and reinforced good behavior. Because he was nonverbal, she initially taught communication using pictures. At age 5, he began speaking single words. When Eric was socially inappropriate, she tried extinguishing and replacing those behaviors. In essence, Eric’s life became Duquette’s.
Next week: Learn how Eric graduated second in his high school class, was a nationally recognized Spanish student, and has plans to become a pharmacist.