Twelve-year-old Gabe Nio works on a vocabulary assignment at his small table at Cypress School in Petaluma.
The question on the paper asks Gabe to write down who his friends are. His professional aide, Amanda Dito, repeats the question for him: "Gabe, who are your friends?"
His first answer? "Cinderella."
His second? "Santa."
His third? "Sydney."
Sydney Starke is Gabe's newest and, by all accounts, most special friend. Sydney, 13, will be an eighth-grader at Petaluma Junior High in the fall, but in the meantime she is spending her summer volunteering at Cypress and has forged a unique bond with Gabe.
Gabe, a slight boy who wears wire-rimmed glasses, has autism and attends the private, not-for-profit Cypress School, where he does academic work and also gets experience with gardening, horseback riding, bowling and simple group games to improve his social skills.
But it's the connection between Gabe and Sydney that struck school director Laura Briggin, who has a four-decade history working with students with developmental disabilities.
Gabe reaches for Sydney's hand when they cross the street during daily walks around the Cypress campus. He lets her push him on the swing in the occupational therapy room. They share a bottle of bubbles and eat lunch together at his small classroom work station.
"Typically, children with autism aren't motivated in social interaction," Briggin said.
But Sydney has struck a chord with Gabe, she said.
"I have been in the field 39 years and I can't guess why these cool things happen, but they sometimes do," she said. "Sometimes there is magic ... you can't replicate this."
One in 110 children in the U.S. has some form of autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But the disorder of the brain may be much more widespread than previously thought, according to a recent study conducted in South Korea and led by the Yale Child Study Center. The study was published in May by the American Journal of Psychiatry.
That five-year study on 55,000 children focused not just on children in special education programs, but included those in regular schools. When students in regular schools were part of the assessment, the prevalence rate rose to one child in 38 with the disorder.
At Cypress, where all students have special needs, 27 of the 37 students have some form of autism.
Despite the prevalence of children with the disorder, connecting kids with autism to regular education students can be difficult because of the nature of how autism presents itself, said Gabe's mom, Theresa Nio.
That is what makes Sydney special, Nio said.
"Unfortunately, we are in this environment where there are more and more kids with autism popping up for some reason," she said. "To have someone that young understand that everyone is a little different and this is really different than the kids she goes to school with ... it's just a very nice thing."
At the school's vegetable garden on Casa Grande Road, Sydney partners with Gabe in a corner of the plot to pull prickly weeds.
Under the hot sun, Sydney sighs.
"Are you OK?" Gabe asks, without looking at her.
"I'm OK," she replied.
It's a simple exchange, but unusual because social conversations are rare for children with autism.