Paula's perspective

From the Principal's Desk ...

I looked at the calendar today, and realized that we are somehow two weeks away from the end of summer school. Seriously, how did that happen? This time of year can be a frenetic balance between putting the final touches on one school year and the preparations for another, between ends and beginnings. It's the time when we all (hopefully) take some time to reflect on what we've accomplished, and to think about all the things we have yet to tackle. It's also the time when we are most likely to say goodbye to some of our familiar faces, and get ready to welcome new teammates (and students!) to the PACTT family.

This school year marks the end of my 11th school year as principal here at PACTT. With each year, our program gets stronger, and our team questions and dreams and pushes our program even further - to find new and better ways to support our students and families. It's a journey that I am grateful to travel alongside a dedicated and talented team of teachers, paraprofessionals, and therapists - not to mention our amazing residential teams who support our group home students 24/7.

Last but not least, none of us would be here if it weren't for the remarkable students we have the honor of working with. Thank you for putting your trust in us, and allowing us the privilege of teaching and learning with your children each day.


Staff training with a bit of fun on the side

Our new staff and our veteran crew got a chance to know each other today - and stretch their communication skills - with a unique challenge involving toothpicks and spice drops! These first two days of school also will give all our staff time to plan for the year, get classrooms organized, and think about their goals for the year. 

We're ready - now all we need are the students!


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!


And we danced!

A small group of school & transition folks attended an energetic concert today by musicians from the Old Town School of Folk Music.

Thanks to an invitation from our new friends at Stuart G Ferst School, we had the opportunity to share in a special folk music concert in a really welcoming and secure environment (Ferst school's gym!).

Lisa and I tagged along with the six students and 3 staff scheduled to attend what will hopefully be the first of many shared experiences ... and I'm so very glad we did!

I absolutely loved watching our students - and team - have so much uninhibited FUN! 



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!

Music to my eyes

After a long morning off-campus visiting another program, I had finally made it to my desk when I received a text message from one of my teachers: "Look in the backyard."


A million things ran through my mind as I flew down the stairs from my third-floor perch. When I hit the first-floor landing, the first spot on my route down that had a decent view, I saw this:

One of our brand-spankin-new paraprofessionals + guitar = happily listening, calm, entertained students.

It certainly wasn't what I expected on this unseasonably warm May afternoon. But you can be sure that I'll be adding it to the list of smiles, day after day, that remind me why I'm still here after all these years. :)

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!).


A Bike Ride with a Purpose

Marty (left) and his dad: Best buds.

Anyone who has seen Michael "Butch" Shanahan with his son Marty will attest to the love and connection between the two. And anyone who has heard him speak about the effect PACTT has had on the lives of everyone in his family, knows he speaks from the heart.

This year, once again, Butch will hop on his bike and ride through Cheeseland, to help raise funds for and awareness of PACTT programs. Funds raised from his rides have provided much-appreciated resources for all our programs. We here at school were particularly happy to watch the installation of our new purple swingsets a few years ago!

He rides because he believes in his son. And he believes in the programs that are helping his son to succeed.

For more information, to make a donation, or to read more about his journey in his own words, see


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

How far we've come ...

I found a reference today to a movie I'd long since forgotten: Produced by Kartemquin Films, "Refrigerator Mothers" takes us back to a time when autism diagnoses reflected more on parenting styles than on neurological differences.

The movie's IMDb description, reads:

Refrigerator Mothers paints an intimate portrait of an entire generation of mothers, already laden with the challenge of raising profoundly disordered children, who lived for years under the dehumanizing shadow of professionally promoted "mother blame." Once isolated and unheard, these mothers have emerged with strong, resilient voices to share the details of their personal journeys. Through their poignant stories, Refrigerator Mothers puts a human face on what can happen when authority goes unquestioned and humanity is removed from the search for scientific answers. 

I had the opportunity to see a viewing of this film at the 2002 Autism Society of America conference, surrounded by parents, professionals and other caregivers. I remember thinking how hard it was to believe that doctors and scientists would make such wild assumptions about families. My heart went out to the mothers in the film, whose lives were turned upside down - not only by their children, but by the professionals who were supposed to help.

For people new to autism, or who are interested in a historical perspective, I'd highly recommend sharing this movie - though you might also want to share a box of tissues. It's listed on Netflix, but it's also available online for free at:

An aside:  I marvel each day at the warmth, compassion, and endless patience of our parents and families. If you ask me, it's obvious Dr. Bettelheim never met any PACTT parents, or his theory quickly would have been disproven! - Paula


New "Wretches and Jabberers" documentary features two adults with autism

"Wretches & Jabberers" is the newest documentary to star two individuals on the spectrum, in which the self-labeled "Wretches" use their AAC devices to communicate with the rest of us "Jabberers."

From the Autism Society of America website:

"AMC Theatres (AMC), a leading theatrical exhibition and entertainment company, is partnering with the Autism Society and Area 23a, an event-based distribution company, for a unique, national theatrical run of the feature documentary WRETCHES & JABBERERS to commemorate National Autism Awareness Month in April.

WRETCHES & JABBERERS is a poignant narrative directed by Academy Award® winner Gerardine Wurzburg that follows two men with autism, Tracy Thresher and Larry Bissonnette, who embark on a global quest to change attitudes about disability, intelligence and communication."

Chicago is one of 40 cities to participate in the limited-release viewings. The Chicago showing is scheduled for Saturday, April 9th at noon at the AMC South Barrington (175 Studio Drive, South Barrington, IL).

For more information on the film, or on the Chicago-area showing, visit the Autism Society of America website at

PACTT-Parker partnership continues

Today, PACTT school, transition, and adult programs welcomed a new group of volunteers from Francis W Parker High School. The 17 high school juniors will spend eight scheduled days with PACTT students over the course of the school year. Some days will be on site at PACTT, and some will be on Francis Parker's campus -- including our May Field Day. 

The Parker juniors' visits are part of a community-based class, focused on autism and other disabilities. As they work with PACTT folks, they'll get some hands-on experience in an area with which many of them are completely unfamiliar (for now!). PACTT students get a chance to make new friends, build social skills, and experience visits to a more typical high school.

It's an incredible program, all-around, and we look forward to getting to know our new Parker friends this year!

- Paula

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

PACTT teachers present at national conference

Last week, PACTT teachers Sarah Aldrich and Lauren Mucha presented a poster session at the national Council for Exceptional Children conference in Nashville, TN.

The topic of the session was "Community Employment for Students with Severe Autism," and discussed the components of a successful transition program with an emphasis on community employment.

Congratulations, Lauren and Sarah, on a successful presentation!

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!

What -I- learned at my IEP: Autism Resource Center

At one of our IEP staffings this week, Dr. Louis Kraus brought me information about a new online Autism Resource Center. Rush University Medical Center is working on compiling a clearinghouse of information and resources for parents, educators, therapists and caregivers alike ... So if you're, say, looking for a dentist who specializes in autism, a place to do hippotherapy, or a summer camp - they've got listings all across the Chicago Metro area. I haven't had much time to explore, but from my cursory glance this afternoon, it seems like a worthwhile project.

Check it out at:

- Paula