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April is Autism Awareness Month, an occasion I would like to honor by dedicating this column to all the children in our nation’s schools who for one reason or another have been given the label "special."

Try to answer one question about autism, and you will find yourself asking 100 more. Then, when you look for those answers, you will be confused by the number of "experts" who disagree with one another on what we really know about this complex disorder.

My experience with autism is limited to the elementary school children I have worked with for more than a year now. These unique children with their honest and special ways of communicating have changed the course of my life.

Until last year, I thought I had already become what I wanted to be when I grew up. Then, I happened upon a long-term assignment in the autism department of our school.

Although I had worked with the adorable kids in the kindergarten autism class, it was my first experience with the pre-adolescent kids. Half of them were bigger than me, and none were thrilled to have another new person walk in the door.

We quickly settled into a routine in which I accompanied three fifth-grade boys to social studies and science classes where they were mainstreamed with their peers.

The tall one wanted nothing to do with me and seemed annoyed that I was there. He worked hard to keep up with the class while ignoring me.

The talkative boy won my heart first because he soaked up every bit of attention I was willing to give him. We read books together and talked about shows on Nickelodeon.

Then there was the third boy who rarely spoke and sometimes made odd noises and gestures. He overcame his shyness of me whenever something in class happened to frighten him, which was often.

Over the course of two months, I got to know the boys’ interests and tried my hardest to convince them to open up to me just a little. Even after a new teacher was hired and I began substituting in another part of the building, I kept returning to the autism department to check on "my boys."

Sometimes I brought the tall one a magazine, stopped in to see what my chatty little friend was reading or just sat quietly next to the more timid child, letting him know I was still there.

On the last day of school, I went outside with the autism teachers to say goodbye to "my boys" as they got on their buses. I wondered what they were doing over the summer.

As the day came closer for school to begin, I started making appearances at the school office, asking what sort of jobs might be open for the new year.

As luck would have it, the principal needed a teaching assistant to work with the now-sixth-grade boys. I would be giving up all my spare time for not much money, but she didn’t have to ask me twice. I couldn’t wait to get started.

Working with "my other boys," as I like to call them, has been so rewarding that I’m back in school now pursuing a graduate degree in special education. The progress the three of them have made since last year is amazing.

It turns out the tall one does need help in class and is now willing to ask for it, the chatty one still talks my ears off every chance he gets and the quieter child is less afraid.

There are not enough pages in this newspaper to describe the positive changes I have seen in the children in my school’s autism department this year.

While causes of autism continue to challenge scientists, the area where I can report progress in this often misunderstood disorder is in the field of education. And I’m thrilled to be a part of it.

A mother of three boys, Pam Zich has been married to a Marine for 18 years and currently lives in Springfield, Va. You may e-mail her at homefront@stripes.osd.mil or visit her Web site at www.lifeonthehomefront.com.

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