Our History

Essentially, a child can function within society when they’re able to perform simple tasks like tying their shoes and putting things away. However, for children with autism, these tasks can be extremely difficult or even impossible. Being able to reach more kids and help them live within the mainstream is what inspired local attorney, Garrett Sutton, to come up with the idea for the Sierra Kids Foundation.

He knew Joanne Ryan, whose son had entered the University of Nevada, Reno Early Childhood Autism Program at the age of five and had learned many valuable skills that he might not have learned if not for the dedication of his tutors. Garrett was inspired and touched by the work Dr. Patrick Ghezzi’s grad students were able to accomplish with the children enrolled in the Early Childhood Autism Program. Together, Garrett and Joanne approached Dr. Ghezzi and asked how they could help offer scholarships that would enable more children to stay in the program for the entire two years.

“The program is not paid for by the school district or by insurance and was cost prohibitive,” Dr. Ghezzi explained. All three understood that there was a great need to raise scholarships, as cost was generally a limiting factor in the treatment process for some children. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Ghezzi and Garrett coined the name Sierra Kids Foundation.

Together, along with Joanne, they came up with the idea of the Wild West Shootout, an annual high school basketball tournament, which is the primary source of funding for the scholarship program. As both the Sierra Kids Foundation and the Wild West Shootout tournament continue to grow, the foundation strives to reach more and more families and children with autism in Northern Nevada.

Sutton, Ryan and Dr. Ghezzi now sit on the Board of Directors, along with current president Dr. Tomas Hinojosa, Herb Santos, Jr., Rick Abend, Bill Ballinger, Christy Fuller, Mitch Woods, Stasi Taylor and Bryan Samudio.


The UNR Early Childhood Autism Program was co-founded in 1995 by Drs. Patrick M. Ghezzi and Sidney W. Bijou, with technical assistance provided in the early years by Dr. O. Ivar Lovaas and his staff at the UCLA Clinic for the Behavioral Treatment of Children. It is the first and still the only university-based early intensive behavioral intervention program for young children with autism in the state of Nevada, and is one of a handful of such programs in the United States and in the world.

The UNR Early Childhood Autism Program operates out of the Department of Psychology and through the award winning and fully accredited Behavior Analysis Program. It is also a Behavior Analysist Certification Board (BACB) training site for students involved in the science and practice of behavior analysis.

The Heart of the UNR Autism Program History

When children are enrolled in the UNR Early Childhood Autism Program, they’re assigned a personal team of tutors. The tutors are specially trained through an intensive process, which allows them to spend 30 hours per week providing in-depth tutoring at the child’s home. They can also receive school-based services, depending on the child’s needs. While the program has produced incredible results for the children and their families, it also has left a lasting impression on the tutors.

The tutors get the privilege of seeing the children progress from the time they join the program to when they get out of it two years later. It is incredible how much growth can happen in that period of time. They are very grateful for the opportunity to work in a field that changes people’s lives so much and get the chance to develop such special relationships with these kids and families while making a difference in their lives.

While it’s clear this program changes families’ lives, what is less obvious is how special these children become to the program and how much everyone cares about their successes. They become part of an extended family to these children and value the relationships greatly. Although the tutors have a big impact on the children, it may not be as apparent that the children largely impact the tutors’ lives as well.

There are three outstanding providers right here in Northern Nevada who got their start at the UNR Autism Program: