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Consumer Reports

Autistic man has become indispensable to city of Berkeley | (KRT) Did you know that Willie Mays was born on a Sunday? Or that the Declaration of Independence was signed on a Tuesday? Or that the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck early on a Wednesday?

Eric Keys knows all this, and more. Tell him your birthdate, and he'll tell you what day of the week you were born.

But that's just a parlor trick compared to what he really does. Keys, 41, is a drafting aide in Berkeley, Calif.'s, engineering department, where he uses his extraordinary mind to perform infinitely complicated tasks that no one else could possibly do.

For instance, Cristi Delgado, a geographic information system specialist in the department, is making a detailed computer map of Berkeley's sewers, including every hookup from every sewer to every house or apartment in the city.

"All those hookups had to be keyed in individually," she said. "No one could do it but Eric. Anybody else would be overwhelmed by the sheer mass of detail. And I guarantee you: There are no mistakes."

Former city engineer Bob Newlon said the only suitable word to describe Keys is "genius."

"He has an amazing amount of information at his command, the ability to access it instantly, and extraordinary powers of concentration," Newlon said.

"Before we got computers, all our maps had to be drawn by hand," said city engineer Jeff Egeberg. "Eric drew them all, and they are beautiful works of art as well as being absolutely correct, down to the tiniest detail. Now we're doing it on computers, but guess who puts all the information into those computers? Eric, of course."

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What makes his achievements even more remarkable is that he does all this despite the fact that he's autistic.

It could have easily gone another way. Many autistic kids are misdiagnosed as mentally ill and spend the rest of their lives isolated from society.

But Keys was not. And that's a tribute not only to him, but also to a long chain of people who chose to treat him as part of the solution, not part of the problem.

It all started with his mother, Lorean Keys.

"Nobody knew much about autism when he was a little boy, and a lot of parents were just giving up and dumping their kids on the state," she said. "But I said, `I birthed him, and nobody is going to love him as much as his family does.'"

So she searched for doctors, teachers, and school counselors who would focus on Eric's abilities, not his disability. She hit the jackpot with a teacher named Joyce Sutton.

Sutton insisted on mainstreaming Eric and pushed hard to get him admitted to Berkeley High, where he could enter the special needs program. That was where he met Juanita McMullen, manager of the city's Youth Employment Training Program.

"I was recruiting kids for summer jobs, and I noticed some of his drawings," said McMullen. "They were perfect! Every building was drawn to exact scale. So I placed him in a summer job in the engineering department. After he graduated the next year, they hired him full time. And he's been there ever since."

But they didn't realize what they had right away. Keys is so shy it was painful for him to be interviewed in any depth. Softspoken in any case, he is uncomfortable speaking to anyone he doesn't completely trust, such as co-workers and his extended family. And he never talks unless spoken to first.

The first few weeks he worked for the city he was assigned menial duties. Enter civil engineer Edith Acob.

"One day, I noticed that whenever you named a street in Berkeley, no matter how obscure, he'd immediately point to it on a map," said Acob. "I walked into my boss's office and said, `Uh, I think he can do a lot more than delivering mail.'"

That boss was Newlon, who at the time was working as a civil engineer for Berkeley. He gave Acob the green light to use Keys' abilities to the fullest. And to ensure that he'll never be laid off, they created a special job description for him, one that only he can fill.

"Eric's talents are so extraordinary, I'm still not sure they've been fully tapped, even now," said Newlon. "And he's such a joy to have around. The look on his face when he accomplishes something will make your whole day. He's totally ego-less, but he's so thrilled when he gets it right."

All these people have become his second family.

"He comes to see me every day, even though it's been almost 25 years since I placed him in that summer job," says McMullen. "He visits me right after he gets to work and just before he leaves for the day. You could set your watch to it."

When he's not on the job making maps of Berkeley, Keys, who always comes to work in immaculate dress slacks and a collared shirt, makes detailed maps of other cities, including San Francisco, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio.

"He even knows his way around places he's never been before," said Newlon, recalling the time Keys joined Newlon's family for a Fourth of July fireworks show in Culver City, Calif.

Afterward, they couldn't remember where they'd parked in a huge lot. After 45 minutes of searching, it dawned on Newlon to ask Keys if he had any idea where their ride might be.

"He said, `Yes, four rows back and three rows over.' There's no end to what he can do. But you always have to ask; he won't volunteer on his own," Newlon said.

Because of Keys, the city's mapping system is years ahead of neighboring communities, and in 1990 he was chosen Berkeley employee of the month. Since then, he has become indispensable.

"But his greatest contribution is himself," said Newlon. "When you see the joy he gets out of life, it opens up your mind to the possibilities in this world. I'm so blessed to have the privilege of knowing him."

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© 2004, Contra Costa Times Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services