Watching them grow

Andy Fesili saw the difference in his son Jacob, 5, as he ran to the Estancia High School bleachers Saturday morning.

It wasn't the way his son moved, what he said or even what he did, Fesili said. It was when Jacob, a child in Newport Mesa Unified School District's program for kids with autism, chose to run around with his older brother, Matthew, 7, that was a difference.

"You see it all come together today," Fesili said.

Jacob was one of dozens of kids between 3 and 5 participating in the High Five Sports League's annual Olympics event at the high school in Costa Mesa. There, kids on the autism spectrum participated in seven different events from a relay race, softball throw to a 25-yard dash as their parents and teachers, and other kids without autism cheered them on.

In Jacob's first year at the event two years ago, he kept to himself and didn't participate. Instead, he just used his boundless energy to run around the track and up the bleachers, his father said. This year, Jacob seemed to understand what the day was all about and actually joined in the games and got a medal.

"It shows the major improvement in social interaction," Fesili said. "It's night and day in how Jacob has improved."

NMUSD's autism program pairs kids with autism with typical kids. In Jacob's case, he's paired with his twin sister, Grace. The typical kids learn a thing or two about differences in people and tolerance, and the kids with autism can take social cues from their buddies.

"We see growth from the beginning to the end of the season," said Michelle Just, a pre-school teacher at Paularino Elementary School. "It's a celebration."

Kathy McGuire said her son Barrett just graduated from the program and will transition into a regular kindergarten classroom next year.

The strength of the program is the influence typical kids have as role models for kids with varying degrees of autism, she said. Her younger son, Brodey, 3, is a typical kid partnered with an autistic child.

"I liked the race. I won the race twice," said Brady Flake, 5. Only a few steps behind Brady was Kylie Papa, 4, who said she simply liked "everything" about Saturday's event and looks forward to next year.

What wasn't to like? On the bright, warm Saturday morning on Estancia's football field, it was all smiles as kids ran with gold medals bouncing off their chests indistinguishable from their "typical" friends.

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