The children who returned to the
classroom last week at the Illinois Center for Autism in
Fairview Heights found many of the same back-to-school
decorations seen in mainstream schools. Bulletin boards covered
with construction paper handprints and bright red apples reading
At first glance, the rambling brick
building and its hallways lined with classrooms looks much like
any other school. It's the sounds that give away the fact that
the students, who range in age from 3 to 21, are autistic.
Sometimes there's shrieking, sometimes there's groaning, and
sometimes, there's a loud buzzer that means a teacher needs
When the alarm sounds, a light also
flashes above the door to the classroom. Davis, who is the
development coordinator for the center, said any available
teacher or assistant will respond to the buzzer.
"It might be a child throwing things or
out of control in some way. You never know what might set them
off," she said. "Every day is very different from every other
During a two-hour visit last week, the
buzzer sounded at least six times. The students' behavior was
worse than usual, Davis said, because they had just returned to
classes after a two-week break. For the most part, school is
year-round at the center.
Kids need the structure of school, and
autistic kids need more structure than most. They crave routine
and schedules, Davis said, so a long summer break would mean
losing ground for most of the students.
Even if you know one person with autism,
it can't prepare you for a second person with autism. No two
cases are alike. One autistic boy might be able to carry on a
conversation and hold down a job. A second won't talk and can't
perform a simple task without help.
"We have one man who if you tell him
your birth date, he can tell you what day it will be on in 10
years," Davis said. "But if you ask him how many quarters are in
a dollar, he's clueless."
In the 17 years since Davis quit her
banking job to work at the center, she said, autism has become a
much more common diagnosis. When she started work there in 1989,
the incidence was thought to be four or five cases in every
10,000 children. Now it's one out of 166. No one knows whether
there are more cases of autism occurring, or whether there's
just more awareness coupled with earlier diagnosis.
In Davis' role as development
coordinator, she often speaks publicly about autism and the
center. Years ago, she would see eyes in the audience glaze over
because no one had heard of autism. Now, she said, she seldom
gives a talk without being approached afterward by at least two
or three people who tell her they have a child, a cousin or a
neighbor with autism. The disorder is marked by inappropriate
behavior, communication problems and inadequate social skills.
The center serves children until they
turn 21. When that birthday arrives, the student is phased out.
It happened to 11 students last year, which Davis said was the
most ever to leave at one time. Because the center is funded
primarily through school districts, there's no budget to serve
adults. Like many schools, she said, the center constantly looks
for ways to raise money.
It holds three fundraisers every year
and gets help from agencies such as the United Way. Often, such
agencies want to see the center firsthand. (Almost 40 students
are taught in auxiliary classes in Caseyville, Granite City,
Grafton and Bethalto.) Davis shows visitors around the Fairview
Heights school and into observation rooms where they can watch
teachers in action through one-way mirrors.
Each class typically includes four to
six children, a teacher, a teaching assistant and often a
teacher's aide. All 28 teachers at the center hold degrees in
special education. In a computer classroom, three boys worked at
monitors while a fourth ignored the computers to lie down on his
stomach. The teacher followed the school's all-encompassing
philosophy -- ignore the bad and reward the good. In an art
classroom, children strung beads onto cords.
So often, Davis said, she'll warn
visitors of the hitting, running and biting they might see "and
they'll watch these classrooms and the kids are sitting there
like perfect angels."
Peaceful scenes can end abruptly at the
center. Davis recalled eating lunch at her desk one day when a
student ran in -- with a staff member in hot pursuit -- grabbed
Davis' lunch tray and threw it. "I had coleslaw on my computer,"
she said. The child was escorted back to her classroom, and that
was that. Just another very different day at the center.