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.