UVU partners with community to break ground on new autism center

In an effort to meet an increasing community need, Utah Valley University broke ground on April 21 during National Autism Awareness Month, on the Cole Nellesen Building, which will house the Melisa Nellesen Center for Autism.

The center is designed to be immediately useful for the community, families, future educators and others in addressing a myriad of practical issues.

“This is such a great moment on this campus. It is such an exciting time to be a part of Utah Valley University,” said President Matthew S. Holland during the groundbreaking. “There is no reason in the world why we shouldn’t be the national — if not global — leader in how to deal with autism.”

One in 58 children in Utah is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. “This building, with the autism resources at its very core, is in direct response to community feedback and support,” said President Holland. “This will be a unique resource in the state, evidence of what can be accomplished in a public-private partnership.”

The building, which will be located west of the McKay Education Building on the University’s Orem Campus, is expected to be complete in April 2017. The 15,000-square-foot building will house therapy rooms for counseling, social skills groups and family support; sensory rooms; two sensory playgrounds; and a sensory landscape that will enhance children’s motor skills and ability to engage in science exploration.

The new autism facility will house preschool and elementary-level laboratory classrooms. The Cole Nellesen Building will also be utilized by UVU’s Passages program, which provides young adults with higher-functioning autism the opportunity to enroll in noncredit college-level classes designed to enhance the social and independent life skills necessary for them to be successful in a higher education setting.

Nellesen, who, with her husband, Keith, donated the initial gift for the center and named the building in honor of their son, Cole, who has autism spectrum disorder. “When President Holland approached us about the center, it took us about 10 seconds to say that we were in,” said Melisa Nellesen during the groundbreaking event. “Our hope and dream is that this center will be a beacon of hope and that it will be successful in training an army of soldiers to help all of us as we treat our children.”

“A lot of groups are working on autism, but they’re not coordinating their efforts,” said Keith Nellesen. “At UVU, researchers approaching the puzzle from different perspectives can share their ideas and find the best solutions. If professionals come out of UVU with a greater awareness of the challenges of autism and with the skills to unlock the doors, we can help literally thousands of families.”

Other major donors include: J. Brent and Kathryn Wood, founders/owners of Clear Horizons Academy; the Hurst Wood Education Foundation; Vivint Smart Home; Vivint Smart Home CEO Todd Pedersen and his wife, Andrea; doTERRA; Casey Baugh, vice president of sales at Vivint; Utah Community Credit Union; the Sorensen Legacy Foundation; the Kahlert Foundation; Mitchell Burton; and John R. Pestana, co-founder of Omniture.

“Families with children on the autism spectrum benefit greatly from outside assistance, and the right kind of intervention can make a huge difference in their lives,” said Pedersen. “With the Melisa Nellesen Center for Autism, UVU is taking the lead in creating a place where families can go to learn about intervention and other valuable resources. Vivint is committed to supporting this center and the services it will provide to individuals, families, educators and service providers.”

UVU currently offers Utah’s only minor in autism studies, which, like the Passages program, is housed in the College of Humanities & Social Sciences. The minor requires a series of six classes that focus on autism across the lifespan and best practice treatment methodology, as well as more than 200 hours of training with experienced professionals currently working with those living with ASD.

The School of Education will also establish two demonstration classrooms in the new facility to model effective instructional and support strategies for school professionals. This will include one classroom for pre-K children and one for children in grades 1–3. Additionally, a virtual classroom is being established where school professionals can hone their skill sets.

Kirk Jowers, vice president of doTERRA corporate relations, said, “With a mission to empower people through healthy living solutions, doTERRA is honored to extend our support to the important work the UVU autism center is doing for so many individuals and families. We will succeed in enhancing the lives of those on the autism spectrum through the collective efforts of businesses, the community and educators.”

Those wanting to make a contribution to assist with ongoing program costs may visit supportuvu.org/autism. Donors may also contact Nancy Smith, senior director of donor engagement, at 801-863-8896 or nancy.smith@uvu.edu.

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