Eric Duquette defies autism diagnosis, earns Ph.D in pharmacy

By Kendra Gravelle

On May 22, the family of Eric Duquette watched proudly as he received his Doctor of Pharmacy from the University of Rhode Island. For Eric, a resident of Smithfield, this occasion marked the culmination of years of hard work, hours upon hours of studying, months of clinical rotations and two-hour commutes to and from school on a daily basis.

“It felt surreal,” Eric said. “I was finally done with everything, and my hard work paid off.”

He had made it.

“They told him he stood a better chance of getting hit by lightning,” said Judith Duquette, Eric’s mother.

What would be considered a momentous point in any person’s life was especially significant for Eric, who at age four was diagnosed with autism.

Eric began his college career at Rhode Island College, where he majored in biology and chemistry. After two years there, Eric applied to transfer to the College of Pharmacy at URI. Judith explained that at that time, the program was only accepting six to 12 transfer students.

“And when they heard about the autism end of it, they’re like, ‘forget it, you’re not going to survive that program because a lot of people either drop out or flunk out,’” she said, “and Eric survived it.”

Not only did he survive the program and receive his Doctor of Pharmacy, but he received Magna Cum Laude honors.

“We were extremely proud,” Judith said, “but it wasn’t a surprise. He’d worked terribly hard.”

Eric said the rigor of the program was the most difficult aspect of his experience at URI.

“You had to study for the majority of the hours of the day,” he said, “and you’re kind of expected to just know certain things. They didn’t really hold your hand with everything.”

Despite how intense the program was Eric didn’t miss a single class in six years of higher education.

During his last year at URI, Eric participated in several academic rotations, including stints in the psychiatric unit of the Providence VA Medical Center, CVS in Johnston, Kent Hospital in Warwick, Fatima Hospital in North Providence and Rite Aid in West Warwick.

“Eric is one of the most wonderful students I’ve had,” said Ginger Lemay, clinical assistant professor at the URI College of Pharmacy. “He is extremely hard working and very detail oriented.”

Ginger added that Eric always strove to better himself.

“He was constantly looking for feedback so that he could improve,” she said. “He is also very kind, he’s very thoughtful, he’s very respectful, he’s just an all around really nice young man.”

Eric hasn’t forgotten his high school experience, either.

“The [Smithfield] school system implanted a very strong love of learning in me.”

Eric graduated as salutatorian from Smithfield High School in 2010.

“My parents were told that my prognosis was poor and that I would probably end up in an institution,” Eric addressed the crowd during his salutatorian address at his high school graduation. “They felt differently. Today I stand before you accepted into every institution of higher learning that I applied to. So, I guess in a way the experts were right about the institution thing.”

After receiving his diagnosis, Eric’s parents were determined not to let it deter him from having a great life.

“When your baby’s born, you think, ‘Oh, maybe my kid’s going to be President of the United States,” Judith said, “and then instead you get handed this diagnosis.”

“It’s like a trip to Holland,” Eric chimed in. “It doesn’t really turn out the way you wanted it to. You want to go to France but you end up somewhere else.”

“And maybe where you end up is just as nice,” Judith continued.

Judith said she worked for eight to 10 hours each day on his communication.

Although Eric’s communication skills are far beyond what they were expected to be, he admitted that he still has difficulty understanding sarcasm and humor.

Since graduating from high school, Eric has acted as an advocate for people with autism. He even spoke at the Statehouse to encourage private insurers to cover expenses for autism treatment.

Apparently, his efforts haven’t been in vain.

“They did pass the legislation, so now private insurers pay for autism treatment,” his mom said.

But Eric isn’t looking for a pat on the back for his advocacy.

“I want to do the service, but I don’t really want all the glory from the recognition.”

Judith said that Eric has always been a very responsible person.

“He went to his first off-campus party last year with 100 pharmacy students,” Judith said. “The minute I picked him up he said, ‘Just so you know, I wasn’t drinking,’ and I said, ‘Who cares, you’re 24 years old, you want to drink that’s fine! You weren’t driving,’ but he just wanted me to know that he was being responsible.”

Aside from studying, Eric enjoys photographing things in nature, including snakes and spiders.

He is especially fond of frogs.

“I see beauty in lots of things,” he said. “I just like to capture beauty in its natural setting. And I just really like frogs.”

Eric’s appreciation for this particular amphibian was inspired by Ariana Houle, a friend from the pharmacy program who also likes frogs.

“She gave him a stuffed frog, so Eric started collecting frogs,” Judith said. “We have all these frogs now.”

Ariana, who recalled attending CCD with Eric when they were young, said she and Eric still get together occasionally for dinner.

“He is the nicest person you will ever meet,” she said. “Eric is known for always holding the door for everybody. He’s just one of those types of people.”

She added that she can’t imagine her life without Eric in it.

“He’s always been there and he’s taught me some really good life lessons,” she said. “He’s one of my best friends.”

These days, Eric spends the majority of his time studying for the North American Pharmacist Licensure Examination, which he will take in the fall.

“He’s going to feel so lost once his exam’s done,” Judith said. “He’s not going to know what to do with himself. All he’s ever been is a student.”

Eric said once the exam is out of the way, his focus will shift to finding a job in his field.

“I’m excited about landing a job,” he said. “I’m open to anything.”

Judith said she expects a bright future for her son.

“He had a very poor prognosis at a young age, but we always had the same expectations that we had for our daughter. We want the same things for Eric that we’d want for anybody else,” Judith said. “I see the possibilities are limitless.”