Special Needs

Spotlight – Chartwell Center

April 1, 2021

Helping students on the autism spectrum reach their greatest potential 

Autism awareness month is April, yet the Chartwell Center team works year-round to make a difference in the local autism community. Now in its 21st year educating and providing clinical services to children and adults with autism, Chartwell was established by parents who wanted more for their children and did not see other options in New Orleans.  

The center provides a wide variety of services, including Applied Behavior Analysis (a scientific approach to working with students on the spectrum). Twenty staff members serve 21 students aged 3 to 30 years. Preschoolers (ages 3 to 5) are the “happy campers.” Elementary students are the “astronauts” and high school students, “the explorers,” (up to age 20). The center’s PATH program serves young adults (21 years and up), focusing on life skills and vocational training. 

Executive Director Folwell Dunbar, a lifelong educator, describes his student body: “All students are on the more profound end of the spectrum and so have far greater needs. Many are non-verbal and so we use a number of alternative modes of communication, including sign language and devices like iPads for the LAMP program (an alternative communication program using pictograms). All the directions and things around campus use visual aids.”  

Daily Programs 

Daily curriculum includes geography, reading, writing, and math, all aimed at developing essential life skills. Among the four pillars also are key to Chartwell’s programming is art therapy. These exercises are led by an artist in residence who creates visual projects to stimulate students’ artistic and creative abilities and help them learn to think outside the box. Another pillar is health and wellness. That curriculum develops the emotional side of students through gardening, yoga, and meditation. Three music therapists also work with the students.  

Each student has an individualized learning plan tailored to meet their specific needs. Another essential pillar is the teaching of necessary life skills, like stopping at a stop sign, or ordering food and making change in a restaurant. Explains Dunbar, “Parents help develop goals. We ask them what life skills their child needs and then those are skills we work with them on in the classroom. And then we take them into the environment, outside school, to put those skills to work.” 

Because of the individualized instruction, student assessments are done on a daily basis. Says Dunbar, “We look at the data for that day so that we can determine what to do the next day.” 


The school’s campus is beautiful but small. Asked about how the pandemic has affected Chartwell, Folwell Dunbar explains that they’re not quite at full enrollment. “Initially, we had to shut down but soon realized that we couldn’t do virtual instruction as other schools can and did. We realized that we had to have in-person learning. In June 2020, we reopened and have been open since.”

Among the center’s programs that needed to be adjusted for social distancing was the PATH program. Prior to COVID, these students had jobs off-campus, such as at Theo’s Pizza (assembling boxes) and the zoo (greeting visitors). With off-site work curtailed this past year, the students creatively developed their own businesses that could be done on-campus. Among these were students making dog treats (sold online and locally), and one student making soaps and designing boxes.  

Dunbar glowingly describes these ventures. “We want them to be as self-sufficient as they possibly can be and work toward independence. And we’re here to help them reach their greatest potential.” 

For more information, see chartwellcenter.org. 

Photo of Nola Family editor Trevor WisdomTrevor Wisdom is a mom and native New Orleanian, and managing editor of Nola Family. 

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