Nothing Like the Real Thing
Eyes On My Back

The School of Panes et Circenses

Charlie and Jim are in the #1 seat on this ferris wheelShould Colleges [and Universities] Put Education, or Facilities [and Services and Recreation] First? is the subject of a post I put up Tuesday at I really wanted to call the post 'Bread and Circuses' from the Latin phrase panem et circenses, which (quoting myself) 'refers to the practice of [Romans running for political office] appeasing people by providing them with creature comforts like food and entertainment with the aim of winning their acclaim and (political) support.' A recent New York Times article notes that, at colleges and universities across, the US, a 'declining share' of the budget is being spent on instruction, and more and more resources devoted to the likes of student services, athletics, career counseling centers, student centers, facilities, and so forth. 

Not good was my assessment: Shouldn't educational institutions be all about educating, first and foremost? saith I, from my admittedly very biased um-yes-I-am-a-college-professor stance. If a reader gathered that my thought was 'have good teaching and they will come,' she or he would be quite right.

But wait a moment. 

I think about Charlie' school situation at the so-called 'Big Autism Center' and about how strenuously I objected to him going there for some years. 

When the Center was being built, all that anyone talked about was the building, the building, the building---the physical plant---the facilities. How there'd be not one but two swimming pools and a fully equipped gym with a basketball court and a track. Yeh yeh, I said when people mentioned these to me. But (I asked, and did not usually get too detailed answers about) what kind of teaching takes place? What's the staff to student ratio? What's the ABA like? Is it intense enough?

Fast forward to the past couple of months. Charlie goes to the BAC, Charlie likes the BAC, the BAC faded off him wearing the helmet. Charlie's teachers and aides have been good. 'Incidents' of a behavioral nature happen and are not treated as crises, and the emphasis is on how Charlie gets over tough moments and moves on. 

And it does help to have all of that space for regular walks. Not very surprisingly, Charlie loves going swimming (though they don't use the big, 8-feet-plus pool; Charlie seems to be fine about just using the 4-foot deep one--swimming at school is a treat). His music teacher has a smartboard in his classroom, in addition to a keyboard and other equipment, all in a nice big space. Slowly, slowly---usual for Charlie---he's working on some very basic academic skills that are all meant to help him someday 'on the job' and in taking care of himself, to the extent that he can.

I have to admit, the panem et circenses have not been unhelpful. One (but not the only) reason Charlie struggled at his old school was because he was in one classroom for most of the day, in a large (1600 or more students) middle school. His walks were limited (especially when the weather was cold; he did take some walks in the hallways, but I suspect a 'noise issue' made this not always possible, certainly not always when Charlie needed it). Someone donated an exercise bike to Charlie's class but, after a few times of peddling inside (on a bike that went nowhere), Charlie let us know that that 'bike' was not for him. 

Of course, Charlie's educational needs are very different from those of ye average college student in the US. It's not that he had a choice of schools and that the 'amenities' of the Big Autism Center were a 'selling point'---the Center was pretty much Charlie's last option. But someone was thinking about the needs, sensory and physical and otherwise, of kids like Charlie when the Center was designed. And it's not that the school is short of staff; teachers and, in particular, aides (almost all in their 20s---college age-ish, mostly women but some men) seem to be in ready supply.

Charlie certainly seems to be navigating his days, and his moods and this unrelenting hazy hot and humid weather, well. 'Well' as in not always peaceful easy feeling and smiling and cheery, but 'well' as in 'an absence of excessive behavior issues/incidents/'fun.'

We couldn't resist going back to the local carnival yesterday, after our visit on Monday. As it had poured earlier on Tuesday, none of the rides were open when we got to there, except for the spinning circular 'rotor ride' that Temple Grandin talks about liking so much. Jim pointed the ride out to Charlie who said 'yes' and then a definite, quick 'no.' We stood around by the ferris wheel and a man appeared and started it up. Charlie looked very serious as he rode and, once off, called out to do the 'slide' which was right next to the ferris wheel, but the slide was closed. We ventured over to the swings: Closed too, for 15 more minutes. 

Charlie put his chin in his hands. Jim walked us over by the food booths and asked Charlie (approaching a booth where a large bottle of ketchup was displayed) if he'd like some fries. Jim got the fries and Charlie stood by another table where there were two huge Heinz bottles, and took sips from a diet Pepsi (guess who was holding it for him). We made our way slowly back over to the swings and could see two men putting lighted panels onto it, and the seats shimmering with shallow puddles. Some other kids joined us in line. 

Some more minutes (it was time for a cigarette break for the carnival workers) and the seats were wiped off and the swings were open. Charlie hastened to get on, after the other kids. Jim took a ride too, to enjoy the breeze; Charlie craned his neck back to see Jim settling himself into a seat and then had that same 'Here I am' look on his face as the ride went up and into motion.

Charlie wanted to go and do the slide afterwards. He handed over his three tickets, got his burlap sack, and went up the stairs. There was no one at the top as there sometimes is and Jim and I could see Charlie hesitating. Other kids came up, set down their sacks, slid. Charlie moved over to the slide farthest to the right and put his sack down. The other kids were at the bottom while Charlie was still spreading his sack out nice and flat. Jim and I beckoned and smiled to Charlie who, one eye on us, climbed onto the sack, placed his hands carefully on his sides, and came down.

First time he's ever done the giant slide entirely on his own.

A little education can happen at the circus, maybe even more so when there's fries or rather, fricta potata cum ketsupo.



yay for sliding!

Kristina Chew

and solo!


Certainly facilities can make a difference -- what I wouldn't give for a smart board! -- but I think the real gift of the BAC is the attitude that behavior happens and that it can be gotten past.

I have found that attitude very rare in public schools, even in schools with a long history of kids with moderate to severe disabilities and/or who display challenging behavior of any type. Sometimes, in fact, I feel like the one lone -- and lonely -- voice in the wilderness.

I think the reason the BAC has been so successful for Charlie is *attitude* -- that they see Charlie as who he is, and that they realize that difficult moments come and go and that he's a lovely boy -- young man, really -- who shouldn't be defined by those moments.

Obviously, the facilities at the BAC were created with the needs of kids in mind, and are definitely helpful, but all the facilities in the world don't create that attitude, and without it, all the facilities in the world wouldn't make a darned bit of difference.


As a student, I have to say that services are a very, very big part of quality education. Without sufficient services, financial aid & student support services, you won't have as many students. Without information services, students won't do as well. Without career services, they won't be as able to find work for internships or after graduation.

Quality instruction is important, too--don't get me wrong--but it's a matter of both, not either/or.


Having a college student with autism has been a challenge in college to say the least. WE not the school provide all his support. It would be nice if someone actually helped out (including the state, since I do pay taxes like everyone else) but since they don't have to they don't.

I disagree to some extent that what Charlie recieves is part of bread and circuses. I see it as part of his education. Just as the paras that my boys had over the years are part of their eudcation. I also see the social activities and the post educational supports at college, as part of education as well. It all goes to making someone the best they can be in all parts of their lives. We are all more than sitting in a classroom and studying history. One of the main things that we need to teach our children is how to balance every aspect of their lives from academics to sitting and watching a hockey game or taking that giant leap on a slide all by yourself. :)


Here in Ont there aren't any "autism school's". Our private school system is not as comprehensive as yours is nor is it ever paid for by the Province. Also, we don't have ESY. They removed "summer school" in the primary grades long ago - and it was only for courses children needed to catch up on for about month, one class, every morning. Besides it's now much more important to have full time daycare.... sorry JrK and SrK... only costs a billion dollars to do... Just think of the services you could get for that kind of money had he simply put it into the education system for children than need support...

We are going to spec ed next year. And although I triggered the IPRC process I also had the ability to refuse in the end. I don't think there is a better placement within a reasonable distance for us. It's not an ASD class he will be the only ASD child in it... it is a slow learner's classroom with an amazing teacher. You don't ever want to be in the ASD classrooms near us, nor the behavioural ones... Most teachers/support aren't interested in actually teaching those children. They use those classrooms as a step into teaching elsewhere in the board when they get enough seniority.

The Catholic board does not have segregated classrooms, they are all intergrated and unless you are Catholic - even though it's publically funded - you cannot go there until highschool.

Kristina Chew

By the time I'd finished this post last night I was seeing just what you note, that the 'bread and circuses' of Charlie's school aren't such as all but, indeed, part of his education.

Wanted to ask---what sorts of services, supports does the college your child attends offer for someone on the spectrum, or do they not offer anything.....

Kristina Chew


Is there a good site you'd recommend about special ed etc. educational programs in Canada? Charlie was never in a special ed classroom as you describe it, but always in an 'autism' one, though I do think the teachers (at least at the schools he was in, here in New Jersey) saw their teaching autistic children as a vocation (i.e., not as a 'stepping stone').

Kristina Chew

My college being quite small and having (like many schools) found itself in some difficult financial times, I (and other professors) end up (gladly, for me) taking on some non-teaching duties (including career advising and such). I guess I also see these as a part of teaching!

Yes, this issue isn't just an either/or.

Kristina Chew


I think you've hit the proverbial nail on its proverbial head---I guess I was worried that the 'attitude' at BAC would be more of resignation and just letting students 'be as they are.' I've learned that there is indeed a fine line between that and the kind of attitude I've seen with Charlie's teachers and aides, that sense that there are reasons for 'behaviors' but these don't define him.

The New York Times had some article recently on robots as teachers---I know Charlie would be lost without the human element.


he gets the basic support:
extended time on tests, alterntive location, use of a computer and if he wanted to he could tape his lectures (he doesn't like the idea). The school started an aspergers support prgraam based on Dr. Lynda Geller's model of college coaching for aspergers students. They allowed us to put a classroom coach in the clss with him (our expense) to help him with the social adjustments at college.

There is no notetaker program which is very interesting since the college is known for its openness and support of those with learning disabilities.

There is also two kinds of tutoring services. One is tutoring from a grad/student for math (ARC)and the other that is expensive is the HELP center which is staffed by certified teachers. We did not use the HELP center as the director did not understand his aspergers and quite frankly had to send a letter threatening to sue her if she didn't try to stop interferring with his desire to go to school full time. She decided that having met one student with aspergers who couldnt' handle a full course load that meant noone with aspergers could.She kept introducing him to everyone as a part-time student. She shut up and our son is now a junior.

The college coaching prgogram taught throught the Asperger's Educaton Center in NYC is vey interesting as it teaches you how to tech the student with autism how to coordinate, organize and evalute their living arrangements and school. It is a type of life skills program. I ook the course myself and found it immeasureable how it helped me understand just what my son doesn't understand about day to day college life. He does live at home since we did not fel he could handle both academics and social malsrom of school all at once. Everything in time. One day he will be on his own. BTW he wants to go to law school. (atleast that is the plan today)

So to answer your question the supports for the msot part are the basic supports that all LD students would hav except fro teh introduction of the aspergers support program and putting the aide in the classroom, all of which is an extra cost to me. Oh, if we had signed him up for HELP that would have cost more too.

They ctually jsut hired a new director of disability services so we will see if the supports in place for our son will remain or if there will be a fight. College is the lst bastion it seems of educationl support and understanding for all kinds of disabiltiies, which is quite ironic if you ask me, as the concept of social jutice and inclusive society sprung from the thought processes of educators.

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