WALNUT CREEK -- Before 6-year-old Soren Considine began attending the autism preschool program at Valle Verde Elementary two years ago, he refused to color, write or sit still.
But within a week, the previously quiet 4-year-old began talking to his mother in the car on the way to school.
"The tears streamed down my face," said his mother, Eva Marie Considine. "We had started to converse about a single topic without random interruptions of repeated phrases that I didn't quite understand at the time. Soon, he started writing his ABCs and drawing and playing games with his sister more. He was ready for the next step -- kindergarten."
Now finishing up his kindergarten year, Soren is "mainstreamed" with other children in a general education classroom, where he recently worked alongside classmates cutting, coloring and gluing pictures onto a strip of paper to show the progression of "The Three Little Pigs" story.
Although Soren didn't work quite as fast as the boys and girls around him, he finished on time, with help from his teacher, Joanie Cuneo. When he got distracted and started chattering about a snake, Cuneo gently refocused him and other students on the task at hand.
"We're thinking about the three pigs," she reminded them.
Soren quickly got back to work. He grabbed his glue stick with gusto and carefully guided it across his paper, then placed the pigs in their proper places.
"You guys are all experts on the three pigs!" Cuneo beamed.
Soren smiled at his success. Later, he joined his classmates on brightly colored carpet squares, where they sat quietly while Cuneo took attendance.
Nearby, his mother was meeting with Soren's former preschool teacher Ellen Terminello and Soren's new case manager Calla VanBuskirk. They will assist in Soren's transition and full inclusion into first grade in the school's autism magnet program.
"All my students are at or above grade level," Terminello said proudly. "They're very verbal. Their disability is social skills and pragmatic language. These children are actually a gift to a classroom. They have a lot of general knowledge."
Terminello recently received a "You Make a Difference" award from the Mt. Diablo school district, which recognizes people who positively impact the lives of special education students. She was nominated by Eva Marie Considine and another parent.
"My son has transformed from the boy who sits in the sandbox to the boy with many friends and a bright and loving personality," Considine wrote in her nomination for Terminello. "She is my miracle worker!"
Early intervention for autistic students is key to their success, Terminello said. One of her students' favorite activities is working in a "motor room," where they practice climbing on a giant structure, throwing colorful balls and sitting still while they wait for their turns to play.
Next year, Considine said she plans to nominate Cuneo for the "You Make a Difference" award.
"These ladies are such a team," she said. "And they truly have made a difference, for which I am forever grateful."
For more information about autism in the Mt. Diablo Unified School District, Soren Considine's experiences at Valle Verde Elementary, or the district's "You Make a Difference" awards, read the On Assignment blog at www.ibabuzz.com/onassignment.