The new Spectrum Learning Center opened on the University campus early last month and provides early intervention learning services to children with autism and other neurodevelopmental or learning disabilities. The center will provide service to children aged three to eight years old and will work closely with family and community stakeholders.
Bethany Contreras is the executive director of the Spectrum Learning Center and is an assistant professor in the psychology department. Contreras is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and is an expert in applied behavioral analysis (ABA), an approach often used in the treatment of young children with autism or other neurodevelopmental disabilities. 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 10-30 hours of treatment per week for one to three years for each child.
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 Contreras hopes that the Spectrum Learning Center will be able to close the gap that was left in the community.
“It’s a really fun line of work,” Contreras said. “I love doing early intervention, not just with young children with autism, but with young children in need of supports generally. 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 me 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.”
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 1 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.
When Contreras joined the University two years ago, she negotiated start-up funds for the program as the program would be part of her research. Contreras is focused on three major research areas. The first is variability and novelty in behavior. An example Contreras gives describes the behavior of a person keeping keys in their pocket and reaching to grab them each time they unlock their door. This, she explains, is an effective repetitive behavior. However, if the keys are lost, that behavior won’t work anymore, and the behavior must be adapted in order to open the door. Contreras is interested in helping those who rely on repetitive behaviors to adapt when exposed to a change in their routine.
The second research area is promoting independence for young children with autism and other forms of neurodivergence. One way Contreras promotes independence with the children is by giving them a visual schedule, like a binder with pictures of different activities. The idea is to give the child the visual schedule, and the pictures serve as a prompt for the child to engage in the different activities in the schedule. Ideally, the child will open the binder and complete the first activity, clean up, and move to the next activity in the binder. Contreras says this can be helpful in establishing independence in routines, like getting ready for bed. These behaviors might seem mundane, but independence in these tasks can make a world of difference in the lives of autistic children and their families, Contreras says.
The third major research area Contreras is pursuing is efficiency of skill teaching. When the behavioral therapists work with each child, it’s helpful to know the best way to teach new skills to that child. As part of a client’s programming, the staff will establish goals for the child to reach. Those goals each have a teaching program that consists of different activities geared toward helping a child reach a goal, and the focus is on making sure that those teaching programs are optimized for each child. Contreras is most focused on skill building that can enable children to be more independent in the world. Because children with autism are often nonverbal, Contreras said there are different ways to teach a child to ask for things, which is important for independence. A child can choose which method works most effectively for them whether that be verbal requests, picture exchanges or sign language, and Contreras can use that choice for her research and to help achieve other goals in the child’s program. Maximizing efficiency of teaching new skills can help a child progress more quickly.
“I love doing early intervention, not just with young children with autism, but with young children in need of supports generally. 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."
“It’s when I was working with adults with disabilities that the importance of early intervention sunk in,” Contreras said. “There were so many individuals in really restrictive settings. They didn’t have a lot of independence, they didn’t have a lot of autonomy, they weren’t allowed to make their own choices, and often if they had been allowed, they didn’t have the skillset to make their own choices.” 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 clinic is 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.
“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, now I have a small team and we’re slowly building.”
The center is located on the ground floor of Cain Hall and is currently accepting new patients.
“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. 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.
The center also accepts Hometown Health and Contreras is working on being able to accept clients through the Autism Treatment Assistance Program, a statewide program that helps to connect families with services. Contreras is also reaching out 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.