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The Foundation of PAAL

PAAL “Preparing Adolescents with Autism for Adult Life” began operations in September of 2006.  PAAL is a specialty secondary-educational program for adolescents with moderate to severe autism between the ages of 14 and 21, which establishes a professional collaboration between the educational system, families, and the community-at-large.  The primary goal of the PAAL program is to identify and teach the skills which must be mastered to prepare the student for his or her post-21 years.  Since “best practices’ indicate that individuals with autism learn better in the naturally-occurring environment, the program utilizes the community as its classroom.  By so doing, the fundamental principles of transition and integration into the community for adult life are supported.

Peter F. Gerhardt Ed.D, President of the Organization for Autism Research (OAR), is Primary Consultant to PAAL.   Dr. Gerhardt, who consults nationally on the issue of adolescents with autism, and has over twenty-five years of experience in this field, works with PAAL to develop our program and to monitor its implementation.  Dr. Gerhardt advises on staff training as well as on critical policies and procedure.  To learn more about Dr. Gerhardt, click here.

Program Components

School Day
  • State-regulated number of school days.  PAAL student hours are 9:00 AM through 3:00 PM.  In order to more closely emulate a junior and senior high school day, plans are in the works to extend PAAL student hours.  An extended school day would allow students to participate in peer-to-peer programs, after-school sports, and similar activities.  Additionally, transition-age students need to maximize instructional time to prepare for the demands of adulthood.
  • Click here to view a typical weekly schedule (PDF)
ABA Based Programming
Intensive Learning Environment
  • Frequent, intensive, structured, and consistent learning opportunities.
  • Availability of student/teacher ratio is 1:2 (community) or 1:3 (classroom).  Wherever necessary to meet a student’s needs, classroom/community support staff with the availability of 1:1.  A fundamental program principal is to increase ratios as quickly as is competently possible.  Independence is the goal, and further, 1:1 ratios are rarely available in adult services.
Entirely Community-Based Instruction
  • School-based education and instruction for acquisition of prerequisite skills. The classroom facility is located in the heart of the business district of Downingtown, PA, and is in close proximity to the Chester County High School, thus presenting opportunities for interaction with typically-developing peers.  A peer-directed leisure-skill acquisition program to take place during after-school hours is in the planning stage.  It is anticipated that student-interns at Downingtown East, Downingtown West, and Shanahan High Schools will function as peer-directors.
  • The classroom facility and life-skills house are within walking distance of public transportation that accesses both the Exton Mall and West Chester Borough.  Students with autism are eligible to ride public transportation at zero or reduced cost. PAAL staffers assist families in registering with the transportation company.
  • The classroom facility and life-skills house are within walking distance of two parks with basketball courts, tennis courts, and playgrounds.  They are located close to walking and biking trails.
  • Community Partnerships have been established with such businesses as the Desmond Hotel, Palace Bowling, ACAC Gyro, Regal Cinema, a local gymnastics gym, a pool hall, ice hockey rink, rock climbing facility, miniature golf course, and pottery studio.
Curriculum and Learning Opportunities Specifically Tailored to the Defined Characteristics of Adult Life

The curriculum of the PAAL Program has been designed for adolescents between the ages of
14 – 21. The curriculum has the following core components:

  • Highly Individualized
  • Intensity of Instruction
  • Community Based
  • Implemented According to the Principals of Applied Behavior Analysis

Philosophically, PAAL follows the Syracuse Curriculum.  As referenced in the Syracuse guide, this curriculum is highly individualized, intensive in nature, and focused on the development of adaptive behaviors in the areas of social competencies, community living, community training, interdependence, and self-determination.  Every aspect of the curriculum is intended to have a functional goal.  Functional academic skills are addressed: primarily math, reading, and writing with an emphasis on functional communication training.  Practically, once these skills are targeted through the IEP process, baseline data is collected to assess competencies and identify areas for increased mastery.

Once mastery criteria is set, data is continually collected and assessed in order that learning programs and interventions strategies can be continually modified to increase independent skill levels.  All learning is implemented and monitored according to the principals of Applied Behavior Analysis, utilizing systems of reinforcement, prompting strategies, and the naturally-occurring cues within the natural environment to teach skill acquisition.  Skill acquisition learning programs are developed for each skill taught. Each student’s day is scheduled pursuant to the Comprehensive Autism Planning System (Myles, Brenda 2006)(CAPS). Functional assessments are performed to determine the function of maladaptive behaviors prior to the development of behavior reduction plans.  Appropriate replacement behaviors are identified prior to the development of positive behavior plans.

Learning Opportunities may be in the following areas:

  • Career Choice (PAAL advocates to re-engineer the traditional view concerning vocational opportunity, and tailors opportunities to individuals with autism.)
  • Where and How We Live – Lifestyle Issues (PAAL begins with the student’s family’s vision of life post-21; identifies existing supports; creates new opportunities; then backward chains in order for students to acquire the skills necessary to make the vision a reality.)
  • Leisure/Recreation and Hobbies (PAAL identifies the skill sets necessary for students to engage in meaningful recreational activities on an individualized basis.)
  • Other Quality of Life Issues, including Public and Private Social Circles (PAAL cultivates community acceptance.)

Educational strategies employed include PECS, incidental teaching, fluency-based instruction, task analysis, backward chaining, schedules of reinforcement, positive behavior support, peer modeling, functional analysis, data collection, and strategies to promote social competencies.

Adaptive Physical Education
  • Community-based at ACAC Fitness Center maximizing opportunities to acquire skills necessary to appropriately function within a community setting.
  • Specific adaptive physical education goals are IEP-driven, but may include swimming, running on the track, proper use of fitness equipment, team sport instruction such as soccer and/or basketball, and callisthenic exercise.
  • Students access and utilize the community physical fitness facility just as any other member of the community, complete with their own key fob for check in.
  • Utilization of the locker room to change into appropriate fitness attire and for showering.
Emphasis on Pragmatic Communication
Sexuality Training
Home and Coordination
Life Skills/Respite Transition House
  • A 1600 square foot home in a residential neighborhood within walking distance from the classroom facility and retail shopping.
  • Once identified as an appropriate IEP goal, opportunities for learning in the life-skills house occur on a daily basis.
  • Private parking allows for safe access to school transportation for community activities that require transportation.
  • The life-skills house is within walking distance of public transportation to Exton Mall and the Borough of West Chester. Students will learn appropriate and safe access to public transportation as part of their regular instruction.
Respite and Transition Opportunities
  • It is planned that the life-skills house will be available for older students (18 through 21, and post-21) to experience time away from home in a familiar environment with familiar responsible adults (i.e. school staff.)
  • Time away from home serves to prepare the student for transition to whatever independent living arrangement is decided upon, should residence away from home be contemplated following graduation.
  • These opportunities will provide respite to the students’ families and prepare the families for the eventual departure of the student to his or her adult home.