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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.

"I guess you could say we are friends. I don't know how to explain it," Sydney said. "We do like to play together and I'm with him most of the day."

Sydney began her connection with Cypress through her mom, Kim, who is a speech therapist. For a few summers, she worked short stints at Cypress-related summer camps, but this year she volunteered to come into the school three to four days a week for a full day.

"Right now, I want to work with kids when I'm older. So I'm definitely getting experience out of it," Sydney said. "You are doing it, but you are also helping someone else. It's nice to know that."

Julie Jumisko, a professional aide at Cypress, said the relationship is positive for everyone.

"Not all kids get exposure to kids with different abilities. It's good both ways," she said.

"She's phenomenal," said Gabe's teacher Nate Yates.

At an age when many kids begin turning all of their attention inward and on their own stories, Sydney has expanded her horizons to include a full spectrum of people and situations, Yates said.

"For somebody to have a bigger perspective on that kind of thing is rare, I think," he said.

Dito, Gabe's professional aide at Cypress and constant companion, lets Sydney interact, instruct and lead Gabe in all manner of activities.

"She responds to him how a kid would, not how a teacher would," Dito said, adding that that element is key.

Unnerved by loud, unexpected noise or an abrupt change in schedule, Gabe finds comfort in touch, whereas some students shy away from contact.

"If he's anxious, he'll say &‘I want to be a hug,'" Dito said. Or he'll say nothing at all and just wrap someone up in an embrace.

After giving Dito a double squeeze Friday morning, Gabe let go and asked, "Are you OK?" but didn't wait for an answer. That is simply the phrase he has registered as what people say when they hug each other, Dito said.

When a visitor asks Gabe a question, he listens but does not reply until Sydney or his professional Dito repeat the query. The pattern continues for hours — until he decides to answer one question for himself.

"Gabe, do you like having Sydney with you?" the visitor asks.

Looking up from his desk, but not making eye contact, his answer is quick.


Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat .com. She can be reached at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield @pressdemocrat.com.

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