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Pieces in the autism puzzle

The Magic M&Ms, pictured from left, are Grace Tinsley, Marissa Owens, Jamie Preator, Mariah Flohr and Ayla Pavelka. Pictured below are puzzle-piece necklaces the group made as part of their project. They made $400 selling them at RMS and at a craft fair in Rosemount. For video of the team's skit, go to

If the members of Rosemount Middle School's Magic M&Ms can't be the cure for autism, they at least hope to be a piece of the puzzle.

The Magic M&Ms, it's worth noting, are not mystical candy. They're a Destination ImagiNation team: five bright, energetic sixth graders who have taken on the challenge of raising money for and awareness of the fight against a condition few understand completely.

Their name comes from their shared affinity for fantasy stories and chocolate candies.

DI offers a number of potential challenges from which students can choose. The M&Ms took on a category that asks them to use social networking to bring attention to and raise money for a cause. They chose autism because team member Grace Tinsley has an autistic brother.

The students got help from RMS teacher Diane Podolecki, who works with special needs students. She let them use her classroom to practice, and they gave her the $400 they raised so she could buy new equipment to use with her students.

The students raised money by creating necklaces shaped like puzzle pieces -- the symbol for autism awareness -- and selling them at school and at a craft fair held earlier this month at Rosemount High School. They also created a blog where they could post information about autism.

It took a lot of work to get everything done -- the girls estimate they spent about 12 hours each making the brightly-colored necklaces out of polymer clay -- but they also had a lot of fun.

"I think we all became better friends from this," said team member Jamie Preator.

The students have to put together an album documenting their project, and they prepared a skit to perform at the competition, which will take place Saturday at Champlin Park High School. They also have to be prepared for an instant challenge, for which they won't get any details until competition day.

The whole process is new for most of the students. Only two of the team members had competed in Destination ImagiNation before.Team member Marissa Owens has been competing since third grades.

They're all good friends, though, and they all have the kind of outgoing personalities that are essential for DI, which is designed to teach kids teamwork and creative thinking.

"I've had some really creative teams before, but this is the best one," Owens said.

The students performed their skit last week for their classmates in the sixth grade Tree House. They were nervous, but they got better reviews than they expected.

"I was kind of afraid I'd be made fun of, because I'm the weird girl," Preator said. "But all I got was compliments."

The students say they have learned a lot about each other, about autism and about all of their classmates with special needs.

"We all know everybody is different," said team member Ayla Pavelka. "They might have something they don't like about themselves but that's just what makes them themselves."

"When I looked at the special needs kids I used to think, 'Let's just go away from them,'" Preator said. "I know I wouldn't like to be treated that way."