Evanston news delivered free to your inbox! 

In a two-part series, the RoundTable explores autism in the Evanston community and identifies resources for family, friends and those struggling with the disorder.

Today one out of every 88 American children is born with an autism spectrum disorder. Early diagnosis and targeted services are strongly recommended for children and adults with autism; fortunately, Evanston is rich with resources.


An Evanston resource for both parents of autistic children and their children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is the Theraplay Institute, located at 1840 Oak Ave. (in the Northwestern University Research Park). Here, in a colorful and cheerful setting, skilled clinicians model playful interactions for both parents and children. The “play” is always relationship-based and focused on introducing and reinforcing positive interactions that foster secure attachments between parent and child.

Social worker and Theraplay Institute Program Manager Allison Levine said individuals with ASD frequently fail to read social cues, avoid eye contact and often lack empathy for others. Theraplay uses the parent-child relationship to enhance social awareness. “The therapy services for ASD include the parents, and are interactive, structured and adult-guided therapy,” she said.

The Theraplay model brings the parent and child together to provide them an active and new way of relating. Ms. Levine says that the therapist guides both in ways that encourage an affectionate, emotional bond between the two and that create playful exchanges. Rather than only discussing new ways of relating to each other, Theraplay’s strategies aim to create and strengthen these new interactions in very concrete and hands-on ways.

In addition to services targeted for ASD families, The Theraplay Institute provides broader services, all focused on building emotionally healthy children and families. Therapy, training, treatment, advocacy, research and topical workshops are provided for the benefit of all children and their families. Past topics of parent workshops have included “Anxiety in Childhood,” “Sibling Rivalry,” and “Parenting Your Child with ADHD.” Information about services or a roster of parent workshops beginning this fall is available by calling the Theraplay Institute at 847-256-7334.

Have Dreams

Another autism service provider in Evanston is Have Dreams, headquartered in Park Ridge but located in a spacious and well-equipped facility at 2020 Dempster St. This multi-layered organization serves nearly 200 children and young adults and uses the Structured Teaching method developed at the University of North Carolina in the 1970s. The method emerges from the knowledge that people with autism usually process visual information more easily than verbal information. Have Dreams, with its 31 different programs, utilizes visual clues and organized environments to help individuals with autism master skills and use them constructively in their lives.

“We provide high-interest and meaningful content programs aimed at young children through young adults,” said Dana Fenceroy, program director at Have Dreams. Ms. Fenceroy noted that to keep services affordable for families, Have Dreams, a not-for-profit organization, assumes 80 percent of the service costs. “Computer graphic design, cooking, fitness, table games, music, and a variety of other programs are offered for a modest fee of $25 for an hour and a half or a two-hour program,” she says.

Through thematic units, Have Dreams hosts social skills programs that focus on such things as taking turns, listening to others and asking questions. These programs target children ages 6-11. High Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder students ages 6-12 participate in clubs with lessons centered around such appealing topics as movies, pop culture and sports.

Have Dreams also sponsors Saturday pre-teen and teen programs that concentrate on daily living skills. The teen activities emphasize social interactions and cooperation. Weekly programs often involve cooking lessons, including meal planning, shopping, food preparation, sharing the meals and cleaning up. Participants also practice the skills learned in class through community outings to places such as movie theaters, restaurants and sporting events. The Evanston center has a full kitchen, a multi-media room, fitness equipment, a play area and ample workspace.

Volunteers play an important role at Have Dreams, said Ms. Fenceroy. “… We have a great Social Buddy program which trains children and teens from ages 8-17 to act as peer mentors during many of the Center’s programs. That’s actually how I started at Have Dreams,” said Ms. Fenceroy. “In Park Ridge, I was a young teenage volunteer at Have Dreams, and I guess I never left.”

Center for Independent Futures

The Center for Independent Futures (CIF), an Evanston nonprofit located at the intersection of Main Street and Sherman Avenue, supports individuals with disabilities and their families – including people with autism. Jane Doyle, the executive director and a co-founder of the 10-year-old organization, focused her energy into CIF as a result of raising a daughter with disabilities and witnessing the alarming lack of supports and programs for people with disabilities who have completed high school.

“CIF is currently serving more than a hundred individuals annually,” said Ms. Doyle. “And I think our two primary niches are teaching life skills and supporting our participants in being meaningfully connected to their communities.”

Sharon Purdy, community education coordinator at CIF, said, “To us, developing community means that we assist our participants in building support networks in their own communities. In other words, CIF doesn’t want to be the only tool for our participants.” Ms. Purdy explained that learning life skills — how to access and use public transportation, budget money and time, care for one’s personal space and wellness — starts with knowing the places, people and information systems available.

“At CIF,” Ms. Purdy said, “we encourage participants and their families to take part in our Full Life Future Planning process.” The six-session process is based on the assumption that in order to live a full life as a contributing citizen, participants and their families must take time to plan for the future. CIF-trained coaches help participants identify reliable and supportive networks of people who agree to be stakeholders in the process.

CIF also teaches these skills to the 24 residents at Evanston Township High School’s Transition House. This fully furnished house located across the street from the high school is a meaningful special education classroom for students with ASD, as well as other disabilities. Maria Smith, director of special education at ETHS, started the Transition House in 2011 in partnership with CIF.

Next time, the RoundTable will highlight more Evanston-based services and share the success story of one Evanston resident with Asperger’s syndrome.

Judy Chiss

Judy Chiss has been a feature writer at the RoundTable since 2007 and especially enjoys writing about interesting happenings in the schools, as well as how our local not-for-profits impact the community....