Beyond Classroom Borders: Experimental Learning at Nevada

The Early Childhood Autism Program at Nevada is the first and only university-based program for young children with autism in the state, and is one of only a handful of such programs in the United States and the world. The program is part of the University’s award-winning Behavior Analysis Program within the Department of Psychology. In addition to serving children with autism and their families, the program is also a training site for undergraduate student pursuing a degree in psychology or a related field and for graduate students pursuing advanced degrees in behavior analysis. Students are able to work directly with children who have autism and apply scientific principles of Applied Behavior Analysis.

Natalia Garrido, a senior majoring in psychology, said she is “extremely thankful” that she has had the opportunity at Nevada to work with children with autism.

“Working with the kids means really knowing your stuff and bringing your ‘A’ game to every session. The program made sure that I have the skills necessary to do that. The best part is the kids, hands down. Being able to see real progress and know that I’m making a difference in the kids’ as well as the families’ lives is unreal.”

The program is primarily home-based, the sessions taking place in the comfort and security of the children’s homes. According to associate professor of psychology Patrick Ghezzi, co-founder and director of the program, in most cases 30 hours of one-to-one intervention is provided each week throughout the year for a minimum of two years for each child.

A child with autism may also receive school-based services. These services are provided by the University tutors who worked with the child at his or her home and who are also trained to apply the methods of behavior analysis in the regular education classroom.

Doctoral candidate Jenifer Bonow ’04 (psychology), ’10 M.A. (behavior analysis) has been working in the Early Childhood Autism Program for 10 years, the past six as an assistant director and case manager. “This work has been a remarkable and formative experience for me,” she said. “I have been able to see first-hand the power of behavior analysis in changing the lives of these families and children with autism for the better, often so much so that they are indistinguishable from their peers.”

Bonow noted that her undergraduate work in the program led her to pursue a doctorate in behavior analysis at Nevada.

Ghezzi said of students such as Bonow, who, by being an undergraduate tutor, get excited about continuing to help children with autism: “It’s especially gratifying for me to watch an undergraduate student enter the program without a clue as to what they want to be when they grow up and then to leave it when they graduate with a career in behavior analysis clearly in mind. As with the kids and families we serve, that’s an impact that lasts a lifetime.”

This story originally appeared in Nevada Silver and Blue.