By Karen Gutierrez
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Andy Schneider just finished fifth grade. It was a very good year. For the first time, he had true friends.
"I cannot thank those kids enough," says Andy's mother, Mary Anne Schneider, who gets emotional talking about it.
Andy is one of about 40 autistic students in the Kenton County school system. For five years, he has attended River Ridge Elementary School, which has a special center for such children.
Every day this year, Andy spent time in a regular class taught by Jen Kidman. She and her students came to appreciate Andy's unusual ways, and by the end of the year, Andy had changed dramatically.
Once a boy who would cry at the slightest accidental touch, he now hugs people and exchanges high fives.
"He's just a really cool person," says Richard Vando, 12, who became Andy's best friend. "He has his own way of getting along with everybody."
Autism is a brain disorder that affects a person's ability to use language properly and have normal social interaction.
Other than repeating words that are said to him, Andy doesn't really talk.
Yet somehow, he was always part of Kidman's room.
One day last week, she led the children in an analysis of stained-glass artwork. While they eagerly answered questions, Andy flipped through one of his favorite books, Captain Underpants and the Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman.
At one point, he raised his hand. Kidman called on him, but he only stretched his arm higher and grinned. Softly, the class laughed with him.
"He just has a free, light-hearted spirit about him," Kidman said later.
She started the year by quietly asking Mike Egan, a popular, athletic boy, to be one of Andy's helpers.
Eventually, four children took turns escorting Andy down the halls and holding his hand when he needed calming. They were Mike, Richard, Megan Erdman and Ashley Stahl.
"He's smart, but people don't realize it," Ashley says.
She and the others like to brag about Andy.
He can instantly find any state on the map.
He's a stickler for putting books away and straightening calendars on the wall.
He can cut and paste on the computer.
This year, for the first time, Andy's friendships even spilled beyond the school day, Mrs. Schneider says. Children were showing up on her doorstep, asking if he could play.
Another milestone occurred last week, as River Ridge wound up for the summer.
On the playground, Andy and Richard had climbed to the top of two side-by-side slides. Richard went halfway down his, then looked back to encourage his friend.
"Andy," he called.
And that's when Andy did something extraordinary. Instead of just echoing back, he said a word of his own.
More than 130 autistic children were enrolled in 14 Northern Kentucky school districts in 2003:
For more information on autism, go to www.autism-society.org.
|Fort Thomas|| 2|
|Kenton County|| 42|
|Silver Grove|| 2|
Source: Kentucky Department of Education
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