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A MESSAGE WITH CHARACTER

An 11-year-old actor in Shrek the Musical tells autistic children that it's okay to be different.

Eleven-year-old Danielle Soibelman knows how it feels to be different, she told about 60 students at the Florida Autism Center of Excellence.

Danielle, an actor on tour with Shrek the Musical, stopped by the school at 6400 E Chelsea St. with a message that many here could relate to.

In the musical, she plays the roles of young Fiona, young Shrek and a dwarf. She showed the students pictures of herself playing Shrek. Kids picked on the young ogre for being big, green, smelly and ugly. That's why he was so grumpy.

"But don't you think he's pretty?" she asked. "Fiona and Shrek are pretty different. But they're pretty awesome."

About one in 91 U.S. children has some form of autism, according to the school's website. Experts say early therapy can lessen autism's severity.

On Tuesday, students rocked, fidgeted, twisted hands and sang or jumped up and down as Danielle showed pictures and let them try on ogre gloves and ears.

Still, she seemed unfazed. Danielle is used to the lively atmosphere - her 14-year-old brother Matthew has Asperger's syndrome.

He is the reason that she's a member of Actors for Autism and the Autism Society of America.

He is the reason she stops along her 23-city performance tour at places like FACE, one of few public schools statewide that focuses solely on children with some form of autism. The public charter school serves students from age 3 to 22 from Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Polk, Manatee and Sarasota counties. It shares a 150-acre campus with Mary Help of Christians Center, as well as several goats, cows and horses. Students garden and sell their crops to parents and faculty at an on-site farmers market.

The goal for some students is to gain the necessary social and behavioral skills to attend their neighborhood schools. For others, it's greater independence.

"It was an opportunity for them to see a real live actor," said Tom Porter, director of Quest Schools, which oversees the school.

The cartoon ogre and ogress are popular among students, he said.

Six-year-old Evan Poe handed Danielle a stack of thank-you cards the children made earlier.

Danielle said she adores her older brother. She started going to social skills groups with him when she was 2 and has interacted with kids with autism ever since. At her elementary school, she stood up for students with disabilities when they were teased.

Next week, Danielle will return to her home in Los Angeles for some time off. She misses her pet ducks, dogs and cat, and of course, her brother.

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at eparker@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3431.

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