Parent info

Online parent chat: Ask the SLP

This week, we took a chance at something relatively new - our second-ever online discussion opportunity for parents. The topic? Communication! Thank you to all the parents who participated in the chat live, to those of you who sent questions in advance, and to PACTT's speech / language pathologist extraordinaire, Jenny Westervelt, for being our expert-of-the-day! The questions and responses from our chat are below.

Q1: The teacher says he uses his device all the time at school, but he won't use it at home. Help?

A1: Just like you might need to talk more when you’re at work versus when you’re at home, your child tends to have more demands for structured communication at school and a little less at home. He also probably has a special way of communicating with you. But that doesn’t mean he couldn’t use more practice with his device at home! Start by helping him carry around the device in your house. Even if he isn’t using it there right away, it will help him see that the device is meant to be used everywhere, and that it’s not just his “school words”. 

Next, try modeling it yourself!  It doesn’t put any demands on him to just watch you use the device, which can help ease him into the transition of hearing his “words” spoken everywhere. When you’re watching TV together, use his device to say things like “I like that character, he’s funny” (press the like and funny button as you say them!). Or “Turn it up”, “I don’t like this show”, “Should we get a snack?”  Seeing and hearing his device used in more settings than just at school will help your child learn that these are his “words” and can be used everywhere!

Q2: He has an iPad for communication, but all he wants to do is watch YouTube videos! What can we do?

A2: This can be so tricky! What child wouldn’t choose playing Angry Birds and watching YouTube over having a conversation?  

If a student is given an ipad for communication purposes, I will right away lock him into the communication app using “guided access mode” so that the only thing that ever turns on is that communication app. That way my student won’t even know what he’s missing since he never sees the other apps. Even though there are some great apps for students with autism, we want him to know that his ipad is for communicating, and that the classroom ipads, family ipads or laptops are for leisure. 

If he is using his ipad for both leisure and communication, he’s not going to love it when you first lock him into his speech app using guided access mode. Try it in short intervals at first, maybe with a timer so that he can see how long he’s expected to stay in his communication app. 

Q3: Sometimes it seems like my child just can’t quite get the word out - it’s on the tip of his tongue. How can I help?

A3: Let’s say your child is trying to tell you where he wants to go, but is having a hard time getting the words out. Give him some hints first before you start playing the guessing game! 

First, give him a “semantic cue” or two - some clues about what the word might be (e.g. “Maybe a restaurant, or a store, or somewhere outside...?”)  If that doesn’t work, give him the beginning of the sentence and then wait a few seconds, such as “I want to go to…..”  

Is he still having a hard time getting the word out? If you are already pretty sure where he wants to go, you can give him the first sound of the word, (e.g. “I want to go to Mc….”). More often than not, that will do the trick! And if not, now’s the time to play the guessing game.

Ok. But what about for our AAC users?

Great question! Now let's say that your child is trying to open a bag of chips, but needs help. Let's also say that he has been using his AAC device for a while, and has practiced saying "help", but doesn't always know when to say it, or it seems like the word is on "the tip of his tongue." Give him some hints as well!

"Help" is usually on the main screen of his AAC device, as it's one of the most important vocabulary words. Give him some general hints before more obvious ones.

First, give a sweeping gesture toward his device to remind him to use his "words." You could say, "Hmm ... it looks like you need something ..." If he needs more, use your finger to gesture around the area of the button that says "help." Usually, that will remind him which word he needs to say. If not, point directly at the button for "help" for a more obvious hint.  

Q4: How do I teach a new word on a device?

A4: Learning new words on a device is like learning a whole new language - it takes time, practice, and a lot of imitation. If you’re trying to teach your child how to say “don’t” on his device (one of my favorite words to teach), model it!  YOU press the “don’t” button when you say “don’t” in conversation. While you’re chatting with your child, verbally say things like “I DON’T like broccoli”, and press the “don’t” button at the same time as you say it out loud. You want to teach him that the words you’re saying out loud are the same as the words on his device. 

Teach the same word in lots of different contexts. Press “don’t” as you say, “I DON’T like it when you grab my shirt”, “DON’T  go! Come sit with me”, or “It looks like you DON’T want that”. In order to teach your child new vocabulary words, you need to get familiar with where the words are yourself! Take some time to play around by making sentences and opening the different vocabulary folders. I have backups of each student’s vocabulary pages, so don’t be afraid to explore!

For more information on AAC use, or specific questions about your child, email Jen.

Autism Awareness Month wrap-up

Throughout April, PACTT has been sharing autism resources on Facebook and Twitter. Here's a wrap up of everything that was posted, in case you missed it:

* Have you ever stared blankly at your (fill-in-the-device-here), wondering whether there's an app to help with routines, or sensory sensitivity, or teaching social skills? Here's a nifty wheel that pulls many of them together.

* Did you know that PACTT has its very own Pinterest page, with a collection of fun resources?

* OCALI. Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence has an abundance of FREE online resources and trainings on all things autism: (

* Texas Autism Resource Guide for Effective Teaching (TARGET). TARGET has detailed info sheets on effective teaching practices for individuals with autism. They also have quick videos of effective tools and strategies: 

* PACTT's Transition Timeline is a quick way to help get a student's post-school planning on track. /transition-resources/

* Looking for sensory-friendly options for movies, museums, or sporting events? This blogger shares some useful tips and tricks:

* A playlist of TED talks about autism:

Tips for an autism-friendly Halloween

Halloween, with its candy and costumes and traditions, is an exciting time of year for most children. But for folks on the autism spectrum, it can be downright overwhelming. So, we've pulled together a couple of great resources on how to make it all a little more autism-friendly:

First Up:

Blogger Bec Oakley of fame shares her tried-and-true tips for a more inclusive holiday for individuals with autism in a guest post here: 

(And for reminders of why we love Oakley's site, check out this previous Principal's Desk post.)

Last but not least:

The Indiana Resource Center for Autism (part of Indiana University Bloomington) has a fantastic amount of useful research and information - wander around their site for a bit, and you'll see what I mean. This month, they've posted a useful list of tips for Sensory-Friendly Fall Activities and Celebrations.

Whatever you do, have a safe and happy Halloween season!

Have another great resource to add to the collection? Share it with us in the comments!

PACTT Family Open House - and special guests!

Ah, Open House! The rooms were spiffed up, student art decked the walls, and our new staff were excited to get the chance to meet some of our amazing families.

We also were privileged to have two members of Robert Crown Center's Health Education team join us at this year's open house, to talk about their brand-new puberty curriculum. They adapted their traditional curriculum to meet the needs of students on the autism spectrum.  Educators from Robert Crown will be visiting the school later this month, to do their presentations for our students. We are SO excited to be their "guinea pigs" as they roll out this new project - both learning from them, and sharing our experiences in this tricky-to-teach area. Here's a pic of health educator Laura, with her giant "Chompers."


Navigating the autism blog-o-sphere

Every now and then, I use this space to share resources for parents, professionals and whoever else might pass through. This is one of those days! (So, no awesome student pictures today, but keep reading anyway, ok?)

- Paula

There are a LOT of autism blogs out there in the world. A LOT. Go ahead - google "autism blog" and see what comes up -- it's good stuff and not-so-good stuff and everything in between. My search yielded 10 pages of results. I'm not sure how anyone can process that much information, or even begin to weed through it.

Soooo ... I'm going to do it for you! Today, I'm going to introduce you to my first new favorite blog. And, I'll keep weeding through the pages, and next time I find one worth sharing, I will. Meanwhile, you send me your favorites, and I'll share them with everyone else. Deal?

Drumroll, please? If you (and I mean you - parent, teacher, sibling, innocent autism bystander) only read one blog this week/month/year, make it this one: Snagglebox ( She's a mom of two boys with autism. She's down-to-earth, she's realistic, and she has a ton of great perspective and useful information.

Here are a few of her latest entry topics:

So, there you have it. Do you have a favorite blog or blogger? Email me or add it to the comments here. Maybe it'll even get featured in a future post!

Thanks for reading!


OT Corner: Planning for winter

In this OT Corner, Lill shares resources for dealing with the tricky transition from warm weather to the layers of a winter wardrobe:

Transitions are tough, but they're even tougher for our students with autism. It seems like no sooner have they adjusted to the no-jacket, yes-sandals, beach-going summer fun, than it's time to don the boots, hats and gloves of winter.

So, what can we do to help make it just a little easier?

Make it part of the routine: So many of our students thrive on structure and routine. So, start adding things to their get-ready routine. One of our students had his very own "ready for recess" schedule, that listed everything he needed to put on that day - hat, coat, gloves, boots, scarf - weather depending, of course. He knew he had to check the schedule, and the teachers had the flexibility to add / subtract picture symbols for whatever he would need that day.

Make it fun: If I put on my hat, gloves and coat (which I'm not particularly fond of doing) for the first time this season, then get in the car and go to the doctor, it's not going to make me want to do it again. Reward the behavior with something positive, while you're teaching it - time on the swing, fun with bubbles, etc. Caution: Make sure it's something that's not SO rewarding that it'll trap you into three months of begging / meltdowns because you can't always drop everything and go to Target.

Don't give up: Remember, not everyone gets it the first time. Be sure clothes are familiar and comfortable. Set reasonable expectations - many of our students have a higher tolerance for cold than we do. That wool hat might push them into heat-overdrive ... until it's cold enough to make a difference. Try different fabrics / styles. And, in the end, we've found that when it gets cold enough, even the most intolerant student will finally keep those gloves on!

More ideas: We came across this page from The Autism File with some more great tips for helping children (and adults) with autism to adjust to Mother Nature's changes. 

If you have ideas we've missed, add them to the comments below and let us know! 


To stim, or not to stim?

We all have things we do to keep ourselves calm, alert, or engaged. How many of us fidget with a pen or paperclip during stressful meetings, tap a toe, or ...? Our students with autism do the very same thing ... but their "stims" are usually more obvious, and at times can be less socially acceptable. But we all need to regulate ourselves, right? We need strategies for keeping ourselves calm and relaxed. So how do we as parents, teachers, and caregivers decide the difference between reinforceable and replaceable behaviors?

I came across a really neat blog today ( and had to share this perfectly logical chart:

The blogger, Anabelle Listic, is a 27 year-old artist living is Seattle and is a film and digital photographer. Anabelle has autism and is profoundly visual. And she has a wonderfully unique perspective. (Her website is - if you have time, check out her awesome photography there, too!)

Most of the time, our participants can't tell us why they do things, or what they need. We often have to play detective, or employ a great deal of trial and error, to figure it out. For me, at least, it's eye-opening to be able to hear perspectives on autism from the people who LIVE it each day. Thank you, Anabelle!

December Parent Update

December 2011

Here we come a calendar-ing!

Before I forget - or you forget! - I wanted to remind everyone that our Winter Break for School and Transition programs begins on WEDNESDAY, Dec. 20th at NOON. Students will eat an early lunch that day, and buses, cabs, and pack mules will all leave from the school at 12 p.m. Please ensure that someone will be at your home to meet this bus at its earlier arrival time. Group homes will be staffed accordingly. 

Spreading holiday cheer

Our students got in the spirit of things this week, as they packaged donated items for our friends at the Howard Area Community Center. Last month, an anonymous donor gave us tons of lunch bags, mini-radios, and other assorted doo-dads. So, we decided to turn it into a vocational opportunity for our students (who loved putting together all the packages), and a way to spread the cheer with another local organization. The folks at HACC will share the packages with the students in their after school programs. Find photos, and more details, later this week, right here on thePrincipal's Blog.

Our annual tradition

All our School, Transition, and Adult Voc folks bundled up and headed downtown this morning to catch the windows on State Street, visit the tree in Daley Plaza, and enjoy a (highlight-of-the-trip) stop at the Golden Arches for a snack before heading back north on the El. Everyone has been looking forward to this long-standing PACTT tradition (and we were THRILLED that the weather cooperated this year!). Snapshots from the trip will (hopefully) be online by this weekend.

Stay up to date with all things PACTT on our facebook page (, our website, and especially here on my Principal's Blog. More info on our HACC donations, photos from the Christmas trip, and more will arrive in both places in the next few days.

 Wishing you ...

And finally, no matter what holiday you celebrate this time of year, may it be filled with the gifts of joy, love and peace.

See you next year!

- Paula

p.s. School and Transition Programs resume Wednesday, Jan. 4th.

November Parent Update

November 2011

First Quarter Ends

Hard to believe it, but we've reached the end of our first quarter. Progress reports will be mailed or sent home in the next week or so. We're proud of all our students' accomplishments! We've been working hard and playing harder -- scroll down in this blog for pictures of our Halloween fun!

Save the date!

PACTT's annual Thanksgiving Feast will take place Wednesday, November 23rd from 1:45 to 2:45 p.m. School families will gather at the main school building (7101 N. Greenview), and Transition / Voc families will celebrate at the Transition Center (1544 W. Morse).

As always, we'll provide the turkey and all the fixin's. If you'd like to bring something for the festivities, a dessert or drink (juice, pop, water), would be appreciated.

The little things DO add up ...

Thanks to your support, we've had a successful semester of school fundraising!

- We earned nearly $300 from Target RedCard users (we get 1% of all purchases made using the card). 

- We've collected more than $300 worth of Boxtops for Education (we earn 10 cents for each boxtop sent in -- Do THAT math, and you'll see that the little things really DO add up - keep sending them in!).

- And we sold more than 40 Entertainment Books!

Thank you for all your support! For more information on the Target card, For more info on the Boxtops for Education, see:

Agency Fundraising Fun

PACTT's first-ever Gold Rush takes place this Sunday, Nov. 13th. Visit to see how you can turn your old jewlery into cash for you - or donations for PACTT!

Stay in Touch

Want to stay updated on all things PACTT? "Like" us on Facebook (, and visit here at the Principal's Blog. Also, be sure to update your information in our new online database ( - available by 11/14/11 -  to keep up with all the agency-wide news.

As always ... Thank you for your continued support of our programs, our team, and our extended PACTT family!

 - Paula

Introducing ... The OT Corner

This week, we welcome a new voice to the Principal’s Desk blog. Lill Tarnow, PACTT’s Occupational Therapist, brings us “The OT Corner.” In what we hope to become a regular feature, Lill will tap into her 13 years of experience at PACTT, share ideas, and answer questions. You can email Lill your questions or ideas at, comment directly on this blog post, or use the site’s Contact form. We want to hear from you!

With that, I’ll turn the keyboard over to Lill!

Hi PACTT Families and Friends, 

I have spent the past week talking with co-workers and wracking my brain to come up with something really stupendous to share with you all for my first post to the OT Corner. Alas, stupendous seems to be beyond my grasp right now, but Paula gave me a great idea. Put together a list of ideas and activities that could help parents enjoy the upcoming 3-week summer break.

Well ... I can certainly tell you how important structure and routine are, but you probably already know that. And, honestly, I don’t have any “expert” ideas about, or experience in, dealing with young people during school breaks.

However, after 13 years at PACTT, I do know who the REAL EXPERTS on school breaks are! I am referring, of course, to all of you wonderful people who love and live with individuals with autism. So, please - take just a few moments and send me one (or more if you like) of the ideas that have helped to make your summer break more enjoyable (and less stressful). With your help over the next week, I will be able post a list of activities and ideas that have been tested and proven effective.

So, welcome to the OT Corner. Please let me know what you would like to see here. I hope this can be a place where we can share information related to occupational therapy that is meaningful and relevant to you. I will be happy to address any areas of interest or concern that you might have. If you have questions, I will do my best to find answers. If you hear about a new product or treatment idea, please share, so I can be sure to stay as up to date as possible.

In the meantime, I am looking forward to all of your great ideas for summer break.

OTishly yours,


Doctors and dentists and respite, oh my!

Finding the right people to work with your child on the autism spectrum is tough. We often get phone calls from people both within and outside the PACTT family, asking for help in the search for service providers who have shown success and knowledge in the area of autism.

Yes, I've started compiling a list over the years of folks we've encountered with whom our parents have found strong allies. Doctors, dentists, special recreation providers, private therapists -- I can only imagine how overwhelming it can be for parents to find just the right person.

My best resource for things like this has always been our parent community, a small - but determined - group of parents, intent on getting the very best services for their children. But that's certainly not a comprehensive list.

Enter, stage left: 

According to its "About" page, MyAutismTeam is trying to do this on a large scale. Parents can sign up for a free account, build their "teams," and recommend specific providers. It's a nationwide parent-to-parent database, and could be a fantastical idea (IF, and only IF people participate).

Don't worry - I'm going to keep on adding to my lists, as I hear more about stellar resources from our parents and friends; if you have someone to add (physician, psychiatrist, dentist, etc.), send me their name and save someone else the trouble of searching far and wide for their nearest autism-friendly WHOever.

But check out, too. The more local providers on there, the better the resource for everyone (and feel free to give PACTT a shout-out while you're there!).


For your pre-planning pleasure ...

If you're one of those folks who likes to play WAY ahead of time, our 2011-2012 School and Transition calendar is now available for download. Go to and scroll to the bottom of the page, where you can download it in .pdf format.

You'll notice a few minor changes in next year's calendar, the most noticeable of which is the inclusion of 4 half-days. We've added these throughout the year to give the teaching team more opportunities for professional development. 

Also FYI, beginning in June 2010 our Adult Vocational and CILA programs will run on a separate schedule from the school/transition/children's group homes. The Voc/CILA calendar is available under the Vocational section of the website. 


Sensory overload, or "When Life Stinks"

So many of our students experience sensory moments in ways completely different from the rest of us. It's easy to pick out the folks who are hypersensitive to sounds or light -- but how easy is it to realize that they might be bothered by something we can't even smell? 

From the Autism/Asperger's Digest May 2011 edition:

About one-third of people on the autism spectrum are hypersensitive to smell. Imagine what your world would be like if you were constantly bothered - even sickened - by scents that we neurotypicals filter out! The headaches, the nausea, the inability to attend or focus on what you're doing. What daily irritations the world would bring!

Author Lindsey Biel, a regular columnist in the AADigest, offers a plethora of sensory-smart smell strategies that can help you, your child or your student enjoy life more.

Download a .pdf version of the article, or check out their website. The Autism / Asperger's Digest has a wealth of fantastic information, and several free downloadable articles available here

VIP Soccer Camp

The American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) sponsors VIP Soccer each spring at the lakefront.

VIP (Very Important Players) pairs children with special needs, ages 4-18, with typically developing peer buddies. Sarah, one of our former teachers, will be coaching this spring, and wanted us to share the info with you!

The Spring Season runs Saturdays from April 9 through May 28th, from 3-4 p.m. Location is between Foster and Lawrence, east of Lake Shore Drive (Field #5).

For more information on the program, or to register, check out: (see “Special Needs Soccer” under Programs).

Snow Day Calendar Revision

Thanks to our overly snowy days in February, we've needed to revise our spring calendar. The full version, as well as a downloadable option, can be found here.

The basics:

June break will continue as scheduled. There will be no school the week of June 6-10.

June 13 and 14 (Monday and Tuesday) will be regular school days (8:45 - 2:45).

June 15th (Wed.) will be the first official day of summer hours (8:45 - 12:45).

Welcome to a new school year!

This year brings with it two big additions for us here at PACTT:

  •  Three new students and their families have joined our school program!
  • Our Transition Program is up and running in its new space - across from the current adult vocational site. The Transition students and staff have been incredibly flexible as we grow into the space, slowly but surely. (We'll have pics of the new space soon!)

This Thursday, Sept. 16th, is our School and Transition Open House for current familiesStaff members will be available at both sites from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. to meet and talk with families. We'll also have some fun goodies for you to take home!

Transition Parents -- You can go straight to the new center (1544 W. Morse) to meet with Lauren, Shaun and the gang.

School Parents -- If you'd like to check out the center, we plan to lead a group over there around 7:30 p.m.

Yearbooks are here!!

Our 2009-2010 school yearbooks have arrived! Each student will receive one copy of the yearbook, which you can pick up at Open House. Additional copies will be available Thursday night for $15. If you can't make it to Open House, and still want an extra copy or two, let me know.

You'll also have the opportunity to order prints of your students' individual portraits. We certainly have some good looking kiddos 'round here! Order forms will be distributed with the yearbooks, and photos will arrive in time for holiday gifts.

Speaking of holiday gifts ... we are once again selling Entertainment Books. We earn money for each book we sell, but we need to sell at least 40. Each book costs $25, and has hundreds of dollars worth of savings inside.

Order forms and books will be available at Open House, or the info will be sent home / mailed on Friday. Please remember to specify whether you want the Chicago North/Northwest or Chicago South/Southwest editions.

Thanks to Kathleen Falco for coordinating our Entertainment Book sale! If you have questions, you can email her at or call her at 847-581-1168.

Last but not least -- it's time for another round of Boxtops for Education. Check your Cheerios, Ziplock bags, Pillsbury products, and more for the pink Boxtops logo. We get 10 cents for each one collected (that may seem small, but it certainly adds up!). Send any boxtops you have to school by Friday, Sept. 17th, or bring them to Open House. (Feel free to send them along at any point throughout the school year, also -- but I'll let you know when the official collection dates roll around).

As always, if you have questions, comments, concerns, or happy thoughts (my personal favorite!), feel free to call or email.

Thank you all for your support as we jump into this new school year!

- Paula

Folks we know: A parent's perspective hits the shelves

From the Gravity Pulls You In publisher's website:

"View the universe of autism--its marvels, chaos, and life-changing impacts--through the eyes of the contributors to Gravity Pulls You In. In 33 essays and poems, mothers and fathers raising children on the autism spectrum explore their lives in the context of autism's gravity, discovering what's important and what they find centering."

Flip through Gravity Pulls You In: Perspectives on Parenting Children on the Autism Spectrum, and one of the contributors' stories might start to sound familiar - that's because it's the voice of Ellen Pinkham, a member of our PACTT family. In her essay, and throughout the book, parents of children across the spectrum share common (and uncommon) struggles - but most importantly, showcase the uniqueness of the experience of each of our children and families.

The collection, edited by Kyra Anderson and Vicki Forman, is available on and (for a discounted price) through the Woodbine House website.

Congratulations, Ellen!

2008-2009 Calendar

For your planning pleasure, I offer you the official PACTT agency calendar for the 2008-'09 school year. Note that Group Homes close for all-staff inservice weekends four times during the year. :

25 (Mon.) - Staff return
26 (Tue.) - Students return

1 (Mon.): NO SCHOOL – Labor Day

13 (Mon.): NO SCHOOL – Columbus Day
25 (Sat.): All-Staff In-Service **

10 (Mon.): NO SCHOOL – Veteran's Day, observed
26 (Wed.): School Thanksgiving Feast, Families welcome!
27-28 (Thu-Fri): NO SCHOOL - Thanksgiving

19 (Fri.): Last day of class before Winter Break

WINTER BREAK: Dec. 20th through January 4th - NO SCHOOL!

January 2009
5 (Mon.): Students return
19 (Mon.): NO SCHOOL – Martin Luther King Jr. Day
24 (Sat.): All-Staff In-Service **

13 (Fri.): NO SCHOOL – School Staff In-Service Day
16 (Mon.): NO SCHOOL – President's Day

2 (Mon.): NO SCHOOL – Pulaski Day
13 (Fri.): NO SCHOOL – School In-Service Day (First Aid/CPR)
14 (Sat.): Group Home In-Service Day (First Aid / CPR)**

9 (Thu.): Last day of class before Spring Break
SPRING BREAK: April 10th – April 19th - NO SCHOOL!
20 (Mon.): Students return

8 (Fri.): NO SCHOOL – School Staff In-Service Day
25 (Mon.) : NO SCHOOL – Memorial Day

5 (Fri.): Last day of class before June break
JUNE BREAK: June 6th – June 14th - NO SCHOOL!
15 (Mon.): Students return. Summer School Hours begin (8:45 – 12:45, M-F)

18/19 (Sat./Sun.) All-Staff In-Service Weekend**
31 (Friday): Last day of summer school! Family & friends picnic ...