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Helping Special Needs Kids Break Through Barriers

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Nicky Altikulac.

Photos by Tracey Rice

As Halloween approaches, thoughts turn to costumes, trick-or-treating and festivals. For Nicky Altikulac, BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst), Halloween is a teaching opportunity.

The Peachtree Corners resident is the founder and executive director of All Kids First (AKF), a service offering Applied Behavior Analysis, speech therapy and occupational therapy at clinics in Berkeley Lake, Snellville, Roswell and Alpharetta and in clients’ homes.

Founded in 2005, AKF serves children with developmental disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities. Today, the staff, which has 40 therapists, includes Altikulac’s two sons, Cem and Alp.

Alp Altikulac.

“They’ve been working with me since day one because they were my typical peers to work on social and play skills with my clients. So even when they were in elementary school, always I used to take them with me after school to work on social skills,” she said.

Cem Altikulac

For some AKF clients, Halloween prep can mean two months of work helping a child develop a tolerance for wearing a costume and learning to make the trick-or-treat transaction.

“We practice at home first because we can manipulate the environment to build the prerequisite skills. We teach him to take just one candy if candy is handed to him. Or, if he is verbal, we teach him what to say when waiting his turn to get candy,” Altikulac said.

AKF also offers trick-or-treating at its clinics, where kids can enjoy the experience of wearing costumes and receiving treats.

Halloween becomes a teaching opportunity (Photo courtesy of All Kids First)

“It’s for the parents as much as for the kids,” Altikulac said. “Each parent would like to enjoy the holidays with their kids and see their kids have fun times, like their peers and siblings.”

Individualized treatment plans for AKF clients target areas such as communication, social skills, self-care, play, motor development and academic skills.

One parent asked AKF to teach their autistic child to play video games with his brother. Others have sought help with potty training. Some have called saying they wish their child would respond to his or her name, give a hug or call them mom or dad.

“For others, we take that for granted,” Altikulac said. “And some of the kids don’t show affection the way we do.”

Building her practice

Altikulac says she doesn’t know what triggered her desire for working with special needs children but doing so has been her passion since she was 18 years old. Originally from Turkey, she earned a bachelor’s degree in guidance and psychological consultation from Marmara University and a master’s degree in special education from Istanbul University.

She opened her first clinic serving children with developmental disabilities in Istanbul at the age of 22, and within a few years opened a preschool. She also volunteered for 10 years as a coach for the Turkish Special Olympics Team and as a psychological consultant for an international humanitarian organization working with children living on the streets in Romania.

In 1999, Altikulac married and moved to the U.S., where she completed the Applied Behavioral Analysis certificate program at Penn State University and a 1,500-hour internship program at the Marcus Autism Center that made her eligible to take the exam to get her BCBA certification. She also earned a master’s degree in human behavior from Capella University.
She worked as a therapist in the Babies Can’t Wait Early Intervention Program in Gwinnett and DeKalb counties before opening All Kids First and continued offering the program’s services for a while through her business.

Eileen Kaiser, a project coordinator at the Marcus Autism Center, was Altikulac’s supervisor at Babies Can’t Wait.

“One of my goals was to increase the number of highly qualified providers who could offer services to families. I was pleasantly surprised to receive Nicky’s resume one day. She had an incredible amount of experience working with children with special needs,” Kaiser said. “She brought a lot of knowledge to our program and made it a point to hire only people who had good qualifications.”

Kaiser said All Kids First has helped provide much needed services to children with autism.

“According to CDC statistics, the rate of autism is now estimated to be 1 in 54 children. It is often difficult for parents to find services to address their children’s needs. Many programs have long waiting lists or may be too far for parents to travel. All Kids First offers a variety of services to help families in the north metro area. Applied Behavior Analysis is what most parents are seeking,” she said.

Kaiser said she is glad to count Altikulac as a friend, calling her “hard-working, kind and honest.”

“Nicky’s energy amazes me,” she said.

In addition to her AKF work, Altikulac travels internationally for private consultations and to present at events for families of children with special needs. She also supervises an Applied Behavior Analysis clinic in Istanbul and co-leads Spectrum, a local group for adults with autism needing low support.

‘The journey is long and every step is important’

Duluth resident Jyotica Sood says “Ms. Nicky” has had a major impact on her son’s development. The Peachtree High School student, who has autism, became a client at age two in AKF’s first year.

Her son is a visual learner, so Altikulac used toys, jigsaw puzzles and board games as teaching tools for him in home visits, Sood said. With her encouragement, Altikulac also occasionally brought her sons along.

Sood said her son really enjoyed the visits from Alp and Cem and said she learned a lot about teaching him while watching him play with the boys and their mother.

“So, okay, what she’s doing, how she is doing it, how I can use a simple picture card and teach him. It’s not just about the colors or the picture of a car, but how to look at that car,” she said.

Sood gratefully ticks off her son’s accomplishments, starting with his ability to communicate his needs to his parents. “He can read a paragraph. He can answer questions. He can use a calculator. He knows how to make a phone call now,” she said.

Altikulac’s sons and an AKF therapist helped her son learn to shop the aisles at Walmart, and she hopes that he can live independently one day.

“Today, what he is, a lot of it goes to ABA therapy,” Sood said. “The journey is long, and I understand that every step is very important. Every small thing he learns is important to us.”

Cem and Alp

Altikulac’s sons express great pride in their mother’s devotion to special needs children and say growing up along with her business inspired their career paths.

Cem, 20, oversees the AKF clinics as regional operations manager and is a junior at Georgia State University.

“I feel like watching my mom grow her company throughout these years has given me a sense of perspective about the community around me and pushed me towards wanting to become my own business owner in the future as well as pursuing a business degree at Georgia State,” he said.

Alp, 18, graduated from Norcross High School this year and is a registered behavior technician at AKF.

“The earliest memory I have is me begging my mom not to take me to preschool so I could come to work with her and be a typical peer to the kids in therapy,” he said. “I knew when I was 10 that I wanted to do this with my life. It’s such a joyful and rewarding job and experience.

Every day, people thank me for my services and all that I have done with their child, and my love to help people just continues to drive me further and further. My goal is to get my BCBA and contribute my life to helping special needs children and kids on the spectrum.”

For more information about All Kids First, visit allkidsfirst.com.

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City Government

Town Hall Hosted by Peachtree Corners Councilman Phil Sadd

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Peachtree Corners Councilman Phil Sadd held a town hall meeting at the Winters Chapel United Methodist Church on Nov 2. It was attended by a group of approximately 75 residents.

As part of the presentation, Sadd invited Gwinnett County Police Department’s Major Edward Restrepo and Dunwoody Councilman Tom Lambert to be part of his panel.

The presentation included information regarding a variety of topics. They included:

  • The Forum current state / future vision,
  • Key Construction Project Updates (including Spalding Drive widening; Winters Chapel / Spalding Drive; River Exchange / Holcomb Bridge; New Town Farms neighborhood; and Winters Chapel intersection at Dunwoody Club Drive),
  • Multi-use trail update,
  • Peachtree Corners Town Center update,
  • Curiosity Lab Innovation Center update,
  • What is on the November 8 ballot, and
  • Peachtree Corners Crime Prevention Initiatives.

The audience had the opportunity to ask questions of each panelist. Major Restrepo gave them greater insight on how the use of technology has enabled the police to quickly apprehend criminals and prevent future crimes.

According to feedback from one of the attendees, Major Restrepo’s explanation of how law enforcement works to contain and control crime in our area was not only helpful but very encouraging. They said they went home feeling more secure and less concerned about crime control in the area and in the entire county.

Councilman Sadd began holding these town hall meetings in 2013. He believes that they are an important part of representing the city’s residents.

“I believe that it is very important to meet with constituents and residents to provide them with information regarding the city,” said Sadd. “These types of events not only allow me to provide our residents with information and answer questions, but also allow me to hear directly from them about their concerns, appreciation and what they expect from the city in the future.”

From left, Councilman Phil Sadd, Gwinnett County Police Department’s Major Edward Restrepo and Dunwoody Councilman Tom Lambert

In addition to the audience, there were several local leaders and elected officials that attended the town hall. Attendees included:

  • Georgia House Representative Beth Moore,
  • Peachtree Corners Councilman Eric Christ,
  • Peachtree Corners Councilman Joe Sawyer,
  • Board of Education District 3 Representative Mary Kay Murphy,
  • Georgia State House Candidate Scott Hilton,
  • Georgia State House Candidate Ruwa Romman,
  • Georgia State Senate Candidate Austin McDonald,
  • Peachtree Corners DDA Representative Tim Le,
  • Peachtree Corners Planning Commission Member Alan Kaplan,
  • Peachtree Corners Zoning Board of Appeals Member Marcia Brandes, and
  • Winters Chapel United Methodist Pastor Steve Ring.

As it is an election year, Sadd spoke about the importance of voting. Sample ballots were made available to those in the audience at the completion of the program.

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Community

Gifts We All Want Holiday Market Pops Up Again at The Forum

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Gifts We All Want Holiday Market is back for its second holiday season at The Forum Peachtree Corners. The pop-up will be open through Dec. 30.

Market hours are Mondays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-7 p.m., and Sundays, 12-6 p.m. It’s located next to Sugar Coat Nail Salon and across from La Parilla Mexican Restaurant in The Forum.

“All the community support was appreciated last year,” said Margie Hix, owner of Gifts We All Want. “We look forward to being here to delight the community again with unique, high quality and highly desired gift giving items.”

She noted that this year’s Holiday Market is bigger and better than last year, with 9+ locally owned businesses offering handcrafted and selectively sourced products. Eight of the businesses are owned by women.

“Everyone will have many opportunities to buy ‘Made in the USA’ products while shopping at the market,” Margie added.

Favorites from last year have returned, like the Braves National Championship and college team bourbon barrelhead signs from Konn Kreations and the Makeup Junkie bags from Gifts We All Want that was seen on Shark Tank.

Handmade jewelry is available from makers Lemon Street Box, Edgy Boho Jewelry and ali & bird jewelry. Holiday dresses, sweaters and jackets are offered by Nadia’s Boutique.

Sustainable items, like custom-designed sweatshirts and tees, as well as vegan leather/plastic bags that can be customized, are brought to the market through Right by Earth.

Arts and crafts are well-represented with artworks such as the repurposed glass on painted canvases by Art by Lainey. Other pieces include hand painted ornaments and canvas paintings by Heaven and Nature By HV and hand painted woodwork items by Southern Inspiration.

The aromas of the holidays are found in candles, sachets and home and spa products by Béau Vie, Tyler Candle Company, HydraAromatherapy and more. There are also gourmet food and drink specialties available.

“The Holiday Market is a great place to find items for yourself and for the gifts you have in mind for others,” Margie said. “We’re looking forward to seeing all the familiar faces and meeting new folks, too.”

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Community

The Forum Annual Tree Lighting Set for November 18

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With the holidays fast approaching, The Forum has announced the return of its annual tree lighting, scheduled for Friday, Nov. 18, 6-9 p.m. The event is free and open to the public and will occur in a new format with Forum Drive closed off so guests can stroll along street. The Forum is located at 5155 Peachtree Pkwy. in Peachtree Corners.

Everyone is invited to enjoy the start of the holiday season with a family-friendly activity row that includes face painting, holiday crafts and retailer and restaurant pop-ups. There will also be musical performances on the main stage as well as the arrival of Santa.

Gwinnett County Media Relations Manager Deborah Tuff will serve as host for the evening. Deborah and Mr. Claus will help the crowd count down to the lighting of The Forum’s tree. Then a live band will return to the main stage and perform holiday classics.

More holiday events at The Forum

Following the tree lighting, holiday happenings continue throughout the month of December. They include:

Cookies & Milk with Santa

Thursdays, December 1 and 15, 4 and 5 p.m.

Spend time with St. Nick at Peterbrooke. Tickets are $12 and cover the cost for one child and one adult.

Christmas Crafts with Santa

Thursdays, December 8 and 22, 4 and 5 p.m.

Create a custom work of art alongside Santa Claus while enjoying treats inside Swoozies. Tickets are $12 and cover the cost for one child and one adult.

Storytime with Santa

Fridays, December 2, 9, 16 and 23, 4 and 5 p.m.

Holiday stories are read by Santa Claus inside Pottery Barn. Be sure to bring a camera for photo opportunities. Tickets are $12 and cover the cost for one child and one adult.

Pancakes with Santa

Saturday, December 10, 8:30 and 9:30 a.m.

Start the morning with a pancake breakfast with Mr. Claus inside Mojitos. Tickets are $15 and cover the cost for one child and one adult.

All experiences with Santa events require tickets purchased in advance. Tickets go on sale Thursday, Nov. 10 at 9 a.m.

Menorah Lighting at The Forum

Sunday, December 18, 4-6 p.m.

Celebrate the first night of Chanukah with the Chabad Enrichment Center of Gwinnett during a traditional Menorah lighting ceremony featuring activities for the whole family to enjoy. The event is free and open to the public.

Throughout the holidays, shoppers can also explore seasonal retailer pop-ups from Gifts We All Want and Go! Calendars at The Forum.

For more info on upcoming events at The Forum, visit theforumpeachtree.com/events. To stay up to date on the latest property news and happenings, follow The Forum on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram or visit theforumpeachtree.com.

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