Just a few blocks from the intersection of Napolean and Magazine Streets is an unassuming yellow shotgun house. From the street there is no way to know this is a school — a very special school.
Inside and down the hall is the elementary school of the Chartwell Center, a nonprofit dedicated to serving children with autism spectrum disorders. In one of the two classrooms, Hayden and Matt — ages 8 and 9 — go over a recipe for a drink called Sunset Juice with their two teachers.
Because of the Chartwell Center’s low student to teacher ratio, classwork is geared pretty much exactly to each child’s capabilities. Hayden, who can’t read yet, points. Meanwhile, Matt gets help reading.
His teacher asks, “Matt, you want to take turns reading the steps? Here, read the first one for us.”
“That’s right: put frozen OJ into blender. That’s step number one. Hayden, can you point to step number two? That’s three, you’re getting closer. There you go.”
The goal is to help each child learn how to communicate.
“And can you read number six?” asks his teacher.
“Drink! That’s right, number six, drink. Good job Matt!”
Autism is a neurological impairment, and Priscilla Bourgeois, Executive Director of the Chartwell School, says autism can manifest itself in a bunch of different ways.
“It can affect your social interaction, your communication, your language ability, it can affect your cognition, it just really can run the gamut of impairments. And so, because they’re on a spectrum, the impairments can range from mild to severe.”
“Everyone is totally unique. So you really have to work with them with where they are. The main goal is for everyone to return to a regular classroom. Some get there sooner than others. There’s no certain timetable, but you just take it one day at a time and move forward.”
A few blocks away from the elementary school, in another shotgun house, is Chartwell’s high school. Here it is easy to see how far forward Chartwell’s students can come. With a little prompting from his teacher, I meet an 18-year-old with autism.
“Sami, would you like to introduce yourself?” asks his teacher, Carrie Cassimere.
“What do you say?”
“My name is Sami.”
Carrie Cassimere has worked with Sami for ten years. She says Sami wasn't really talking when he started. But now? "He can do a full sentence if we really prompt him," she says. "He uses a couple words usually, but he can get his point across. And for whatever reason, if we’re not sure or don’t understand, he can write it out. Which is really nice.”
When Sami finishes his work capitalizing proper nouns, he earns a reward: 5 minutes listening to an iPod. With his headphones on, Sami dances around the room with a huge smile on his face. He is completely absorbed and unselfconscious, and clearly loving the music.
“Here at Chartwell we employ many varieties of techniques to get them from one point to the other,” says Bourgeois. “And then we also include the use of music and art therapy, applied behavior analysis. We use everything in the tool chest that we can.”
The school’s tool chest is about to get even bigger. In a few months, Chartwell will move to a new space on Magazine Street, where the elementary and high schools will be together under one roof. There, the Chartwell Center will be able to serve even more students and will continue its role as a community resource — educating others on best practices for helping people with autism.