Special Needs Mini Conference

mini conference

Susan King, author of Optimism for Autism, will be returning to Partner’s In Learning’s Special Needs Mini-Conference as keynote speaker on May 3rd for an encore presentation. She is a wife and mother of four adult children and she will be sharing her journey as the mother of a young man with Autism. She will talk about the challenges and joys of raising a child with Autism.

The conference is a free event for both parents and teachers; child care credit will be given to teachers needing continuing education hours. The Arc of Rowan will provide free child care at Partners In Learning to participants attending the conference. This annual event is a wonderful networking opportunity for the early education and special needs community in our area. Local agencies will be available throughout the conference to share and discuss the services that they provide for individuals, families, professionals, and members of the community.

optimism for autismThis year’s breakout sessions promise to be captivating and will inspire parents and professionals with ideas and hope! You will leave the mini-conference ready to try (and make) new things, with knowledge on your child’s development, and excited to not only be your child’s parent, but their number one advocate!

Participants will be able to attend two breakout sessions. Topics included are (1) use Pinterest to boost your child’s development; (2) hear from parents who have been there and done that and who are willing to share their journeys; (3) making shoe box activities; (4) how to make, or find cheaply, toys and tools that encourage fine motor skills and sensory play; (5) learn from and put yourself in the shoes of a retired Rowan County schools special education teacher; (6) how to have a passion for advocacy; and (7) discipline tips and how to determine triggers of behavioral problems in order to intervene and correct behavior in children with and without special needs.

If any of these topics sounds interesting to you or if you wish to network with the early education and special needs community in our area, please join us for our Special Needs Mini-Conference. The conference will be held in the Ketner building on Catawba College’s campus on May 3rd, 2014. Registration begins at 8:00 a.m. If you need childcare, please drop your child off at Partners In Learning before arriving at Ketner for registration. For more information and to sign up for the mini-conference, please call Partners In Learning at (704) 639-9020. We look forward to seeing you there!

Katie Zink, Infant-Toddler Family Specialist

Katie Zink, Infant-Toddler Family Specialist



Katie Zink is a graduate of Catawba College and serves as a CBRS therapist for Partners In Learning. Prior to her role as a therapist, Katie served as a teacher beginning in 2009.  Working with children is her life’s passion.


Sensory Integration + Holidays = Family Fun

If you visit any of our classrooms at Partners In Learning, you will see a variety of sensory activities that are available to all-ages of children. The classroom teachers get very creative with these types of things and even find a way to incorporate the weekly lesson into the idea.

Now, what do we mean by sensory integration? We all know that our five senses are: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Sensory processing is how our individual body receives and organizes the information created by our senses. Most of us process this information in about the same way, for example, if you hear a train you might cover your ears because it is too loud. Some people have problems with sensory processing, for example they may cover their ears if they hear the buzz of a TV or they may hate to wear clothes because of the feeling it makes against their skin. Many children with Autism experience sensory processing issues, but even children who may or may not have a developmental delay or special need can experience problems with this. Therefore, sensory integration therapy involves treating someone who may have difficulty processing this sensory information and helping them desensitize so that they can better cope with their senses.

Using sensory activities isn’t just for children with special needs. All children can benefit from a variety of sensory opportunities.

Before I give some examples of common sensory ideas, I want to express how easy it is to make these things at home. And with the holiday season coming up, there are even more opportunities to let your child explore each of their senses. For example, let your child help you make cookies for the holidays. Encourage them to add each ingredient and to roll the dough. Let them feel the dough in their hands (I’ll let you decide how messy you want this activity to get). Put the cookies in the oven and explain how HOT the oven is, let them feel the warm air, but take the opportunity to teach them about safety in the kitchen. Set a timer and tell your child to listen for the DING to indicate they are finished. Now, have fun decorating your cookies with frosting and sprinkles (I love doing this with my children during CBRS). Snow is another fantastic sensory activity this time of the year!

The most obvious form of sensory integration activity is a sensory box. Most classes at Partners In Learning have a sensory box that changes according to the lesson plan. My sensory boxes typically have beans in them, but you can use rice, flour, etc. I add little Dollar Tree items that go along with the lesson or season. I like to include sensory balls (squishy balls) or other weird feeling stuff as well. Put cups, tubes, and bottles in the box and allow your child to dig, count, roll, shake, and most importantly feel.

Another popular sensory activity is music time. This may not seem like a sensory activity because it isn’t “weird,” but think about it. If a child is sensitive to sounds, allowing them to experience soft music is beneficial. ALL classrooms at PIL have a music section.

Play-Doh is my favorite sensory activity! It is similar to the sensory box in that it encourages your child to feel and manipulate weird feeling stuff in their hands. Add goodies to your Play-Doh activity, such as grass, sea shells, small plastic animals, buttons, etc. Another great idea is to hide a flashing or noise making toy inside a ball of Play-Doh and ask your child to find it; they are using multiple senses for this activity. You can also make a Mr. Potato Head out of a large blob of Play-Doh and add your body parts to the blob. There are so many sensory and learning opportunities with Play-Doh!

Art activities are another one that you might not think of as sensory-related. But, add some glue, feathers, pop-pop balls, paint, and you’ve got a sensory activity. Try this idea during the holidays: have your child glue mini-marshmallows onto the outline of a snowman or an outline of the letters in their name.

And finally, the play tunnel is a great way to expose your child to multiple senses. Your child may need some encouraging to first go into a tunnel that is dark and small. Try rolling a ball or their favorite toy inside and call them from the other end of the tunnel and I bet they will venture inside just a little. If you don’t have a tunnel, don’t worry, you can do the same thing with a blanket; make a fort!

I hope that you do indeed try some of these ideas with your child this holiday season or in the future, especially if your child hasn’t been exposed to stuff like this before!

Happy Holidays!

Katie Zink, Infant-Toddler Family Specialist

Katie Zink is a graduate of Catawba College and serves as a CBRS therapist for Partners In Learning. Prior to her role as a therapist, Katie served as a teacher beginning in 2009.  Working with children is her life’s passion.

There’s An App For That

There are mobile applications for just about everything these days. From convienece and productivity, to games and teaching tools, parent use apps all day long.

Apps geared toward children with special needs have exploded over the past several years. From apps that turn a tablet into an augmentative communication device for speech, to ones specifically tailored to children with a specific diagnosis, more and more companies are gearing their products toward this audience.

Here are some app recomedations from area therapists and parents of children with special needs.

From the Professionals 

Norma Honeycutt, executive director of Partners In Learning, recommends Twinkly Twinkle Little Star interactive sing along app. This app is a collection of intuitive and educational games, including the a vivid interactive and high quality production of the beloved song. “It is my favorite because it is so simple. Most children learn through music. This is usually the first song that the children I work with learn. When the star is touched the it moves and when the owl is touched it hoots. There is also a peek-a-boo game. This is a simple first opportunity for children to experience cause and effect.”

Another favorite of hers is Cookie Maker, an app that allows children to virtually mix, cook and decorate a cookie. “It is one of my favorites because it makes the child go through steps to get a final product, a cookie. This teaches sequencing and problem solving.”

Katie Zink, CBRS Therapist for Partners In Learning, recommends Dexteria and Dexteria Jr. This app has won numerous awards and is a set of therapeutic hand exercises (not games) to improve fine motor skills and handwriting readiness. “They both focus on fine motor skills, such as finger isolation, pinching, and tracing. I also use these games to encourage speech, such as “When you pinch the pepper, say ‘POP.’”

She also uses SoundingBoard to turn a tablet or phone into an augmentative communication device. “This allows the user to create a communication board with pictures and verbal words that the child can then pick from to make choices throughout their daily routines.”

Zink also uses Mr. Potato Head during her therapy sessions with young children. This app is a game Zink uses during therapy to work on the childrens’ goals. “It is my new favorite with all of my toddlers,” she said. “They can tell me which body part they want to put on first and where they want Mr. Potato Head to ‘visit’ next. This one also works on fine motor and finger isolation when they move their finger to place the parts in the correct holes.”

Dr. Ashley Deaton, Occupational Therapist ad Co-owner, One Step At A Time Therapy Services, agrees with Zink that Dexteria provides several good fine motor activities for pinching objects and tracing.

She recommends My Play Home and My Play Store. She says these are great apps for real world simulation that can be used as modeling for every day routines and behaviors. “For example, you can pick out and put the clothes on the family members, give them a bath, take them outside to jump on the trampoline, or get food for them out of the refrigerator. With My Play Store, you can go to an ice cream shop and scoop ice cream or you can go to the market and buy bananas and apples and feed them to the family members.”

Deaton also recommends Letter School as a fun, interactive app for learning to write letters. This app also has won numerous awards and is described as an intuitive game to learn all about letters and numbers: writing, counting, phonics and more.

From the Front Line – Mom’s Choice

One of my new favorites is Special Words.  The app was created by Down Syndrome Education International, an organization that work with parents and teachers worldwide to improve educational outcomes for children with Down syndrome. The app teaches children to recognize written and spoken words, and encourages their speech development, using pictures and sounds. It’s a great app because it’s backed by research and because it is set up to be motivational, clapping for the child after each round of success.

Another family favorite is Cookie Doodle. An occupational therapist reccomended this to us as an app for following directions and fine motor. Our son enjoys creating virtual cookies, while engaging in speech, fine motor and multi-step direction following skills.

A great pre-school app we also us is Monkey Preschool Lunchbox. The number one preschool game in the iTunes app store, this app offers seven fun educational games for preschoolers about colors, letters, counting, shapes, sizes, matching, and differences. Our son loves the games and making sounds along with the monkey in the app.

Lindsy Maners, mother of a son with Down syndrome, reccommends Articulate for a speech app. “You can program it for exactly what your child needs to work on,” she said. She added that it allows for grouping by letters or sounds and focus and also group by working on beginning, middle, endings. It tracks progress each time as well.

Another mom of a child with special needs, Emily Henry uses Alphabet Aquarium School Adventure. This app provides the opportunity to learn letters through four fun games. “It is great for fine motor and letter identification.

She also recommends Toddler Teasers. This company offers several apps. Henry uses these for teaching shapes. “He knows all of his shapes now he still likes to play it. It also is good for fine motor and matching.”

With the new apps coming out all the time, by the time you try these there will be some new ones to try.

Jill Wagoner is Secretary of the Board of Directors at Partners In Learning and the parent of a son with Down syndrome.


Jill Wagoner is the mother of a child with Down syndrome. She serves as an advocate, writer, speaker, fundraiser, and grant writer for organizations that support children with special needs. A former journalist and current marketer and public relations specialist, Jill has been published in many publications and blogs, including The Salisbury PostModern Parent, and Rowan Magazine.

Hugs… More than Just a Nice Gesture

After a nice big bear-hug, don’t you just feel a sense of calm and happiness?

Sometimes a hug from a family member, close friend, or coworker is what we need to get through the day. Hugs involve human touch as well as a deep pressure that causes our body to react chemically. Oftentimes these hugs work for our children also. But what about our friends with autism who tend to avoid close contact and affection with other people? The truth is they benefit from this deep muscular pressure also, possibly even more than you might think.

Children with autism experience multiple sensory-related issues that we are not used to in our own daily lives, including: hypersensitivity or under-sensitivity to noise, smells, lights, crowds, touch, and much more. While these children typically receive therapies, such as physical and occupational, sensory integration therapy is also being used to help children with autism. This type of therapy seeks to regulate a child’s sensory responses. Results of sensory integration techniques and similar activities involve lower anxiety levels, more focused attention, and even improved behavior.

A great example of sensory integration therapy is the use of weighted vests, or sensory-pressure vests. The way these vests work is essentially representative of a hug, a hug that is constant throughout the use of the vest. Children wear these vests, jackets, belts, or blankets during daily activities, such as playing, learning, eating, or sometimes during rest. The idea is that the pressure unconsciously relieves muscles and joints and allows the child to be more focused and calm.

We use the same idea with our newborn babies when we swaddle them; the pressure gives them a sense of comfort. These techniques have been used not only for children with autism, but also children with ADHD, other sensory integration disorders, as well as many other neurological disorders; the possibilities seems to be endless with this type of therapy.

Similar therapy techniques have also been used with adults who easily get distracted, are hyperactive, or have trouble with their concentration skills. People with Cerebral Palsy and Muscular Dystrophy also benefit from this weight-therapy.

Sensory integration and weight-therapy is so effective that it has also been said to benefit our furry friends. I recently watched a commercial which suggested that dogs benefit from a weighted vest in certain troublesome areas, such as: loud noises, separation anxiety, travel anxiety, crate training, problems barking, and hyperactivity. After further investigation on this product, the underlying principle is the same as what we use with sensory integration therapy. It works with everyone!

So the next time you see a friend looking upset or anxious, give them a nice bear-hug to help them relieve some of their stress!

Katie Zink, Infant-Toddler Family Specialist


Katie Zink is a graduate of Catawba College and serves as a CBRS therapist for Partners In Learning. Prior to her role as a therapist, Katie served as a teacher beginning in 2009.  Working with children is her life’s passion.

Inclusive Therapy Camp Offers Literacy Program For Children of All Abilities

Footprints in the Community, a nonprofit organization that serves children with special needs in the community, recently wrapped up its second annual inclusive summer camp. Two groups of children, ages 2-8, attended Tuesdays or Thursdays in July. The camp was held at North Hills Christian School again this year. Director Dr. Ashley Deaton along with other therapists encourages children with all types of special needs as well as children with no disabilities at all to participate in the camp. Having typically developing peers learn, play and socialize alongside children with special needs is what makes this unique camp inclusive. The professionals and therapists involved in the camp fully believe in an inclusive model for learning, as children of all abilities benefit from learning together.

Photo by Jon C. Lakey
Salisbury Post

The camp is literacy-based with themed units taught utilizing preschool-early elementary level books and paired with planned field trip experiences for hands-on learning. Peer buddies are assigned to a child and hang out with them throughout the morning. After circle time to welcome the children, the groups go from station to station, with snack time in the middle of the activities. Stations include occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, and an academic station. Activities in each station follow a common theme each week. The first two weeks, activities involved lessons surrounding the book “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” The second two weeks, the children learned about “The Little Red Hen.”

In addition to learning from the books, children had the opportunity to expand their learning during two field trips. The first experience of these trips involved boarding and riding Partners In Learning’s bus. This bus ride was many of the children’s first time on a real bus. After the fun bus ride, the children explored Dan Nicholas Park and watched the brown bears during the camp’s first field trip. Patterson Farm hosted the camp’s second field trip in which the children gathered simulated crops and produce from around the farm before delivering it to the pretend market.

While some of these children are just transitioning from Early Intervention to the school system, most of them are not receiving therapy during the summer months. This camp helps these children hold on to and expand skills they may have learned over the past school year.

This amazing camp is wonderful for children of all abilities. Each activity has both an educational and fun aspect to it. The camp allows children the opportunity to socialize and to get out in the community, when they otherwise may not get out of their home often.

Footprints in the Community hosts other activities throughout the year for children with special needs in the community, such as bowling night and an open gymnastics event. They also have an annual golf tournament in which all proceeds benefit the summer camp. Check out their website for more information or to apply for next year’s summer camp: www.footprintsinthecommunity.com. Also check them out on Facebook!

Katie Zink, Infant-Toddler Family Specialist



Katie Zink is a graduate of Catawba College and serves as a CBRS therapist for Partners In Learning. Prior to her role as a therapist, Katie served as a teacher beginning in 2009.  Working with children is her life’s passion.