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Autistic student, 11, steps up when a teaching assistant falls ill

Michael Dupuis helped Audrey McCaulsky, left, when her blood sugar dropped severely.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Michael Dupuis helped Audrey McCaulsky, left, when her blood sugar dropped severely.

ST. PETERSBURG — Michael Dupuis turned over tables, chucked chairs across the room and threatened his teachers when he first enrolled at New Heights Elementary in 2009.

There was little indication that the blue-eyed boy with autism spectrum disorder would one day help save his teaching assistant's life. He did anyway.

While eating toast and fruit and drinking chocolate milk in the school's cafeteria, 11-year-old Michael noticed the adult aide was having a diabetic episode.

In fact, Michael was the only one who noticed.

The steps he took — calm and careful, with a lack of emotion typical of his diagnosis — helped pull Audrey McCaulsky out of a life-threatening situation.

No one could have known back in 2009 that Michael Dupuis would one day do what he did in that moment.

Even fewer would have guessed that his disorder is why he was able to.

When Michael was 18 months old, he wouldn't stop talking about polygons.

"Every time we got to a stop sign, it was, 'Mommy, there's an octagon,' " Andrea Dupuis remembers. "I personally thought I had a baby genius."

But when Dupuis had her second child, she couldn't ignore certain differences between the brothers. Michael would do things, upsetting things, like sip from the baby's bottle and then throw it in the garbage.

Michael was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. He falls on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum but has difficulty empathizing and reading social cues. He fixates on topics, often narrow and obscure.

It was tigers last year. At one point it was the solar system. Now Michael is obsessed with the Titanic. He can tell you when it sank, how many people were on board, who the captain was. Next year it'll be something else.

But somewhere in Michael's filing system, there was diabetes.

A few years ago, Andrea told Michael that his grandmother has diabetes. She briefed him on a few signs to keep an eye out for, and told Michael how to respond: get juice, get an adult.

The boy never mentioned any of this to his teachers, not even in mid February after McCaulsky was hospitalized for a diabetic episode. McCaulsky returned to school on Feb. 21. As she stepped off the bus that morning, she felt a little short of breath but figured that was to be expected. She ushered Michael's class into the cafeteria for breakfast. It's the last thing she remembers.

Michael says she began sweating profusely. He pressed the back of his hand against her forehead, like his mom always does when he's feeling sick. Then he stood up, went to the lunch line and came back with orange juice.

He told McCaulsky to drink. Then he politely let his teacher know that her aide's forehead felt "clammy." Michael knew what was happening, but he would later say he wasn't worried, not even a bit. He couldn't say why.

Loss of mental function, unconsciousness and seizures all can be triggered when blood sugar drops below 50. Paramedics found McCaulsky's at 26.

She says Michael saved her.

• • •

A life-threatening attack would send many students into a panic. But children with Asperger's aren't wired that way.

"He's not going to be upset," said V. Mark Durand, a University of South Florida St. Petersburg psychology professor focused on autism spectrum disorders. "He's just going to apply the logic as if there was a plug in the sink in the bathroom and he needed to tell someone the water's leaking."

Also, the very nature of his fixation — of Michael's ability to catalog — meant that a brief lesson in diabetes management wasn't quickly forgotten.

In his years at New Heights, Michael has learned to control his behavior. He can be very competitive and losing used to guarantee a tantrum, teacher Cheryl Collette said.

Last week she took the class bowling. When Michael was down a few points, she saw his fists ball up. But Michael calmed himself down. He stayed in control, like he did when McCaulsky fell ill.

His mother said she was "completely shocked" when the school told her what Michael had done. "He's a special person. It made me even prouder than what I already was of him."

Michael said he feels "very happy" that people are calling him a hero.

On Thursday, Michael was even wearing a plastic medal. But, he explained, it had nothing to do with helping Audrey McCaulsky; the medal is a souvenir from a Titanic exhibit, probably from the Mahaffey Theater.

Michael mentioned again: He is very interested in the Titanic. Perhaps, he seemed to suggest, we could talk about that instead.

Lisa Gartner can be reached at lgartner@tampabay.com.

Autistic student, 11, steps up when a teaching assistant falls ill 02/28/13 [Last modified: Thursday, February 28, 2013 11:30pm]
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