Vincent & Katie Are Friends

updated 05/29/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/29/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

On a brilliant April day Katie Davis and Vincent Benito—eighth graders at Thomas E. Weightman Middle School in Wesley Chapel, Fla.—pile off the bus with the rest of the kids for a field trip to the Grand Prix Tampa amusement park. Racing around the go-cart track, racking up points in the video arcade, the two take a break for lunch—and then it's on to other attractions. Vincent, Katie says, "is fun to be with."

He also has autism—and the bond Vincent, 15, and Katie, 13, share would have been unthinkable just a few months earlier. Hanging with her friends, Katie would join in the laughter when they spotted Vincent—whom some kids call "the retard"—flapping his arms, staring at his fingers or emitting one of his ear-piercing shrieks. But last spring Katie signed up to be a peer, one of 20 eighth graders paired with a develop-mentally delayed classmate, both to increase tolerance at the school and to give the delayed students a chance to see "mainstream" behavior close-up. For Katie and Vincent, it was the start of something special.

"HOW CAN WE EVER BE FRIENDS?"

To Katie, an honor student and keyboard fanatic who listens to AC/DC, the program, for which students get a class credit, looked like an easy A. But once she and the other mentors were chosen from a pool of 75 applicants, Katie wondered how she was going to get through a 48-minute class every day with Vincent. Didn't kids like him just scream and bang their heads against the wall? Taking her seat next to him in the back of Illeana McCallum's second-period math class for the first time, "I was terrified," Katie says. "He wouldn't listen to me, wouldn't even look at me. They told me friendships form, but I'm like, 'How can we ever be friends?'"

Then, a couple of weeks into the school year, Katie and Vincent sat together in the school's courtyard. She laid her fraying blue backpack—a hand-me-down from her older brother—next to Vincent's new brown one. "I was just rambling on about my weekend," Katie says. "I said something about Busch Gardens. He looked up and repeated it back to me: 'Busch Gardens.' It was the first time he looked at me when I was talking to him. That was the best feeling."

"KATIE MATH"

At 8:20 a.m. on a cool March day, Katie and Vincent take their seats together for math class—or "Katie math," as Vincent now calls it. Vincent and Katie, whose story first appeared in the St. Petersburg Times, have been together eight months and have settled into a routine. Joining them is Suzanne Madden, a trained aide who, according to state law, stays with him throughout the day.

Katie is wearing a T-shirt that says All-American Rejects (one of her favorite bands). "Get your math book, Vincent," she says. Unnoticed by classmates, he retrieves a third-grade-level workbook and a calculator from the desk drawer. Other students in the class are learning fractions and decimals; Vincent works on simple division. He stares at the page in front of him; after a few minutes, Katie, figuring out that the long-division format of the problems is confusing, rewrites them using a division sign, and Vincent starts punching the numbers into his calculator. After a while, he yawns and curls up his legs. "Vincent, feet on the floor," Katie says, adding, after he silently complies, "Thank you."

Vincent puts his head on the desk.

"Vincent, put your head up," Madden tells him. No response. "Vincent, do your math." Nothing.

Katie looks at Vincent. "No math, Vincent," she says. Vincent's head pops up. "Yes, math," he says, picking up his pencil and getting back to work.

"Good job, Vincent," Katie says.

Vincent is one of 10 students with autism in school, but only he and his brother Joseph, 14, attend mainstream classes, at their mother Nila's insistence. Vincent has two other student mentors who attend art and mechanical engineering classes with him, but everyone, from Don Fowler, the school's behavioral specialist, to Jessica Bryan, a speech teacher, have noticed Katie and Vincent's rapport. "From the first time I met Katie, I could tell, she just knows what to do with him," Bryan says. "And he adores her." And by getting a daily object lesson in how typical kids behave, says Fowler, Vincent is acquiring social skills: walking in the hallways with another person rather than lurching ahead, using a tissue to blow his nose, learning not to stuff his mouth with food.

MICKEY MOUSE

Along with autism, Vincent has obsessive-compulsive disorder. He gets hooked on things—his former elementary school, Denham Oaks, or the bright red Macintosh in room 519, the school's computer lab—and will speak of nothing else for weeks at a time. And Disney is a constant.

In speech class, surfing the Internet, which he does ably, Vincent quickly finds what he wants—"The Best of Disney: 50 Years of Magic"—as Katie watches him. Then, later in math class, she pulls a storybook from a nearby table and points to a character.

"Who is this, Vincent?" she asks.

"Mickey Mouse," he calls out.

Experts have written books about joining in whatever it is an autistic child is doing—rather than forcing them to abandon a repetitive activity—as a way to make a connection. Katie hasn't read them. She just knows Vincent.

"He likes the dictionary too," Katie declares. "If you ask him to read it out loud, he will—really fast. We're working on getting him to slow down."

"MY BUDDY VINCENT"

It was lunchtime, and the kids in the Weightman cafeteria were sitting in the usual groups: jocks, chic girls, goths. Katie headed to her table, at the margins of "the popular zone," to eat with her friends. On this fall day, though, she brought a guest. "This is my buddy Vincent," Katie said. "He's in my second-period math class. He's cool." Katie explained that people had to make an effort to talk to Vincent, asking him simple questions. It took a few days, but a few kids started to say hi when Vincent sat down. "Hello, hello, hello," came Vincent's reply.

"I used to laugh when people called Vincent retarded," says Katie's friend Brittany Fallon, 14. "Now I think he's kind of like everybody else." And without trying, Vincent has helped Katie shake off some of the angst of middle-school life. "When you're a teenager, there's so many things you worry about—what will people think of the way I act, dress, the music I listen to?" Katie says. "When I'm with Vincent, none of that matters."

"NOT EVERYONE FITS IN"

Except for the amusement park outing, Katie and Vincent have never gotten together outside of school, though they hope to once they coordinate schedules. Katie worries about what will happen next year, when, because of zoning, she goes to Pasco High School and Vincent attends Wesley Chapel High School—and what the years to come will hold for her friend. "It's sad to think somebody who I know is capable of so much may be underestimated his whole life and probably end up working as a stock boy someplace," says Katie, who hopes to be a writer someday.

She's confident that somehow they'll remain friends. She recalls last Christmas, when, at a class celebration, Vincent gave her a bunch of presents—reindeer socks, lip gloss and a bracelet of purple stones. "It was really special," Katie says. "I plan on keeping them forever."

On March 21 Katie spoke about her year before students in her language-arts class.

"Being in middle school," Katie began, "many of us become rude and judgmental of one another. Not everyone fits in. In fact, more people get left out than fit in. And one of those people on the outside is Vincent.

"Because he has autism, many of us think he isn't normal. But the truth is, he is more normal and even smarter than some of the people I know. After a while with him, I start to forget he has a disability at all.

"As this year has passed ... I have gained patience and acceptance. I just hope that one day society can learn the same lessons and understand that people with autism are just like you and me, with a few minor differences. After all, can you really define normal?"

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