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Spectrum Learning Center opens on UNR campus to serve community


Submitted by University of Nevada, Reno

Early intervention learning services to Nevada children with autism and other neurodevelopmental or learning disabilities are now being provided by the new Spectrum Learning Center at the University of Nevada, Reno. The center provides service to children aged three to eight years old and works closely with family and community stakeholders.

The  Spectrum Learning Center  opening follows the closing of the renowned Early Childhood Autism Program that started at the University in 1995. The program closed when the director, Professor Emeritus Patrick Ghezzi, retired, and Bethany Contreras, executive director of the Spectrum Learning Center hopes this will close the gap that was left in the community following the closing.

Bethany Contreras

“I love doing early intervention, not just with young children with autism, but with young children in need of supports generally,” Contreras said. “It was purposeful to leave autism out of the name of the center because we want to be able to provide services to anyone who needs it, regardless of diagnosis. Having this center enables us to provide the services that are high quality, do the research that will make the services even better and train our students to be good practitioners and researchers.”

Contreras is an assistant professor in the College of Sciences Department of Psychology, is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and is an expert in applied behavioral analysis, an approach often used in the treatment of young children with autism or other neurodevelopmental disabilities.

Applied behavioral analysis, or ABA, is a comprehensive behavioral therapy that can be broadly applied to identify and change behaviors. At the Spectrum Learning Center, it’s designed specifically to suit the needs of each young child. The Center provides from 10 to 30 hours of treatment per week for one to three years for each child, and is currently accepting new patients.

Ramona Houmanfar, psychology professor and director of the Behavior Analysis Program at the University, provides mentorship to faculty members and aligns program activities (like those at the Spectrum Learning Center) with the strategic plan of the program and that of the Department of Psychology.

“An increasing prevalence of children on the autism spectrum, presently one in 54 in the United States, underscores the need for the unmatched efficacy of behavior analytic approaches to the treatment of childhood autism,” Houmanfar said.

The services are primarily center-based, meaning therapists are working with the child in the center, but there is also a parent-training element that takes place in the home as well as community training that involves the extended stakeholders in that child’s life, such as teachers or extended family members.

The University now has two programs that provide ABA treatment to children in the area. The Spectrum Learning Center joins the Behavioral Education and Consulting Services (BECS) to provide programs to children of all ages. BECS provides services for children in Washoe County School District.

“Collaborating with family members and other stakeholders allows for the identification of treatment methods, goals, and outcomes that are in line with the values of children and their caregivers,” Matthew Lewon, director of BECS and assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, said. “This makes it more likely that these individuals are invested in treatment and will contribute to the development and maintenance of learning environments that are most beneficial to their family members in the long run.”

The programs are staffed through the Department of Psychology. Contreras supervises doctoral students who are Board Certified Behavior Analysts working as the clinical case managers, developing each child’s programming and working with the family. Masters and undergraduate students, supervised by the doctoral students, serve as Registered Behavior Technicians working directly with the children. Each child has a team of three or four Registered Behavior Technicians and one case manager.

Edmund J. Cain Hall. Image: UNR

“I received a lot of support from my department and from the College to put all the pieces in place to make this happen,” Contreras said. “I’ve started it from scratch, right now I have a small team and we’re slowly building.”

The center is located on the ground floor of Edmund J. Cain Hall, near the middle of campus on the east side, and accessed off of Evans Avenue.  

“The goal is to eventually be able to bring in any client regardless of their ability to pay,” Contreras said. “For now, we are accepting insurance. We are set up to accept Medicaid and Hometown Health. It was really important to me to target Medicaid to make sure that we’re providing services to an underserved population.”

The center also provides targeted consultation services that don’t involve long-term treatment. The consultation involves short-term, primarily home-based visits that targets one or two specific goals, rather than the 20+ goals a child enrolled in the comprehensive intensive treatment would have.

Contreras is working on being able to accept clients through the Autism Treatment Assistance Program (ATAP), a statewide program that helps to connect families with services. She is reaching out to other programs in the community to find scholarships and support. Contreras expects that the center’s full capacity will be around eight children, each of whom will be receiving around 20 hours of intervention per week. For now, the center is prepared to provide services for three to four children.

“The Spectrum Learning Center helps us continue to provide our outreach services, which is one of the hallmarks of our program and a key feature of what we bring to the College of Science and local community,” Houmanfar said.

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