Donors Make Autism Building a Reality

On a bright morning in late April, a sea of white hard hats could be seen outside the McKay Education Building on the Utah Valley University campus. Guests at the groundbreaking ceremony of the Cole Nellesen Building had been invited to don a hard hat if their life had been touched by autism in some way. 

Hundreds were gathered to show their support for a new building and center where the University and the community will come together for education and support related to autism spectrum disorder. The Melisa Nellesen Center for Autism, which will be housed in the new building, aims to become a regional hub and to provide the best services to individuals on the autism spectrum and the best training to the professionals who can help individuals with autism.

Melisa Nellesen spoke of the heartbreak of learning that her son, Cole, had autism and of the struggle she and her husband, Keith, went through to figure out how best to help him. She had learned that although there was no cure, early intervention promised the best outcomes for children with autism. But there were very few people trained to provide that intervention. 

“So when president Holland approached us with the idea to build this center, it took us about 10 seconds to say that we were in,” said Nellesen. “We went to the community and our friends and told the story of the center, and they quickly lined up and said that they were in as well. 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 for all of us as we help our families deal with the effects of autism.” 

Citing the exceptional collaboration on autism initiatives among colleges and departments — a collaboration of academic leaders concerned only with solving problems and achieving the very best — President Matthew S. Holland said, “There is no reason in the world why we shouldn’t be the national if not global leader for how you deal with autism. That’s who UVU is. We’re the folks that practically deal with the issues around us.” 

architectural rendering of the Cole Nellesen Building

An architectural drawing of the Cole Nellesen Building, which was designed by Curtis Miner Architecture, was revealed to guests. The building’s two-story glass front makes it transparent and welcoming. The front is angled to represent the struggle for balance and stability of those dealing with autism. The angle also prevents the glass from reflecting the sky and becoming obscure, ensuring that the building does not look mysterious. The large roof overhang represents protection and shelter. The building incorporates the industrial look of the core of UVU’s campus with the elevated architecture and mixed materials of its newer buildings, much as UVU incorporates is vocational roots with its newer and loftier university status.

In response to community needs, UVU began an Autism Studies program in 2012. Two years later it announced Passages, a program for individuals transitioning from high school to a university setting or to the job market. The University offers a minor and a certificate program in autism studies, and this fall it will begin offering a bachelor’s degree in special education with a minor in autism. 

To facilitate interaction, observation, and deeper understanding, state-of-the-art, collaboration-focused classrooms for UVU students will be adjacent to classrooms for autistic children in the new building. A lounge for students in the Passages program will provide a secure place for social interaction and a refuge from the stresses of a college campus.

The Cole Nellesen Building and Melisa Nellesen Autism Center are being funded entirely through philanthropy. Top donors include Keith and Melisa Nellesen, whose cornerstone gift is recognized with the naming of the building in honor of their son, Cole; Brent and Kathryn Wood, whose gift is recognized in the naming of the Clear Horizons Academy Floor and the Hurst Wood Foundation Floor; Mitchell Burton and Partners, whose gift is recognized in the naming of the front foyer and children’s area; dōTERRA, whose gift is recognized in the naming of the two playgrounds and sensory gardens; Vivint, whose gift is recognized in the naming of the sensory rooms; Utah Community Credit Union; the Sorensen Legacy Foundation, and the Kahlert Foundation.