Difficult Things Take a Long Time. The Impossible Takes a Little Longer.
Driving home from Rhode Island Hospital, Judy Duquette took a deep breath, trying to stop her tears from falling. In the backseat, her three-year-old son, Eric, was staring off into the distance – at what, the Smithfield mom couldn’t be sure. All she could think of was the diagnosis the specialist had given them, the one that had shaken her to the core: “Your son has severe autism.”
From the time Eric was a toddler, Judy and her husband, Dennis, had known something was … different. Eric couldn’t seem to hear them – or maybe, he just wasn’t listening, and instead of playing with toys, he just lined them up. He did know a dozen words, but after his second birthday, he no longer spoke them.
Then one day, Judy saw Eric pluck out several blades of grass and holding them close to his eyes, watch transfixed as they fluttered to the ground. “Where have you gone baby?” Judy breathed, “Are you even in there?”
“It was like a stake being driven through my heart,” Judy recalls. “All I could think was that there was no cure. Who would take care of Eric if I died? Who would love him?”
Desperate for hope, Judy began reading everything she could about autism, and found a book called Let Me Hear Your Voice: A Family’s Triumph Over Autism. The author, Catherine Maurice, explained how, with behavioral techniques, she and her husband helped their children with autism grow up to lead happy, normal lives. “Maybe Eric can thrive!” Judy dared to think.
So she found a program that provided in-home intervention, but there was a 2 1/2-year waiting list. “Eric can’t wait that long!” Judy cried, and then she decided, “I’ll teach him.” First she needed a place without distractions. So they bought a Little Tykes table and put it in the only small self-contained place in the house – the bathroom. Then, lining up plastic animals, Judy tried a technique that had worked for the Maurices. Taking Eric’s hand and placing it on a toy she said, “Touch cow.”
At first Eric looked at the ceiling, the floor – anywhere but at the cow. When overstimulated, he would burst into tears. Tears of frustration clouded Judy’s vision, too. “I can’t give up,” she told herself, “I can do this. I have to.” Then, one day, a small miracle. Eric’s little hand slowly reached up and touched the cow!
Still, while other four-year-olds were concocting stories, Eric didn’t speak a single word, but after six months of spending hours in the bathroom each day, there were more victories. Eric was speaking words, then eventually sentences. Judy whispered a prayer of gratitude.
By first grade, Eric had come so far that Judy enrolled him in a public school. “He’s brilliant!” teachers marveled. Judy continued to sit with Eric, teaching him other things that didn’t come naturally to children with autism – ways to help him fit in socially.
Still, when Eric started Smithfield High School, Judy was worried. It’s difficult enough being a teen, but being different …
Then one day there was a knock at the door. “Is Eric here?” a young man asked. “Hey, Colby!” Eric said. As they played video games, Judy overheard the boy say, “Let’s hang out tomorrow. Cool?” Suddenly Judy realized, everything was cool.
At graduation, Eric – who hadn’t spoken until age five – stood before the audience at commencement to give an inspiring speech as the class salutatorian. “My parents were told that one day I would end up in an institution,” he said, “and now I stand before you accepted into every institution of higher learning to which I’ve applied.” He continued, “I tell you this. Do not let yourself be defined by your limitations, but rather, be defined by your abilities. Never give up. Never underestimate what is possible.”