A Sense of Belonging: Autism center at UVU provides a win-win situation for students and the community


Since the Melisa Nellesen Center for Autism opened its doors at Utah Valley University slightly more than a year ago, people have been coming for several reasons. Some are seeking help, some want to help, and others want to learn.

As expected, the university provides an education for those who want a career helping individuals with autism, and gives assistance for its students with autism. But there is another aspect — that of helping the larger community through its resources.

Families who are affected by autism might feel isolated rather than excited or inspired, says Laurie Bowen, associate director of community outreach at the center. It may be difficult to be in public because their child may run away, have mannerisms that are unique, or may be overwhelmed by crowds and loud noises. However, they find understanding when they come to UVU, with programs, classes, and activities that offer help.

“We are here to provide assistance and hope as a place where people can connect and find support,” Bowen says.

The center and its initiatives provide a safe place for individuals impacted by autism to come and be who they are, without any judgment, she says. “We provide a home base for people to know where to start.”

Moving Mountains Soccer Camp


Resources for autism are usually limited, but they are extremely difficult to find once an individual leaves high school. It’s known as a “services cliff,” Bowen says. UVU has a program called Passages to fill that gap, for students and non-students.

Josh Olivas is one of the adults who have found help through the Passages program.

“I didn’t know what I was struggling with,” he says, explaining that the diagnosis did not provide the help he needed. “I had come back to the Utah County area and was looking for a program for adults with autism. The needs for adults are definitely different from those of children. 

“Up to that point I had been really frustrated with my diagnosis. I was struggling to work and not sure what my future would be. I couldn’t seem to keep a job. I felt really isolated and reached out on Facebook.”

Bowen contacted him and told him about Passages. He says it was exactly what he was hoping for. 

“It gave me a home, a sense of belonging,” he says.

With Passages, he got the answers to a lot of his questions, and perhaps just as important, it made him feel he wasn’t alone.

“When I started Passages it gave me hope,” he says. “It is manageable. You find you have something to offer. It gave me the motivation to help others.”

That has led to a career. He got involved as a volunteer at Scenic View Academy, which helps children with autism. He teaches life skills and transportation skills there.

An annual autism conference also provides resources to the public, along with a chance for them to network with each other. There are volunteer mentors who help the autistic learn skills, including social interaction. At various times during the year, there are activities and events for families affected by autism to find help and enjoy companionship. Some of those began before the center was created, while others have been added.

Moving Mountains Soccer Camp


“We have coordinated with the Noorda Theatre on campus to offer sensory-friendly performances,” Bowen says. “They make sure there are not as many sudden noises that might disturb the attendees. They have sensory toys available for kids and places where they can go if it does get overwhelming.”

Other activities have included baseball, basketball, and soccer camps, geared toward those on the autism spectrum.

Each summer at UVU, there is a soccer camp for kids with autism, in which they have mentors who work with them individually. It was created by Kylee Wunder when she was just 12 years old. Utah Valley University provided help for her.

“My twin brothers were diagnosed with autism when they were two years old,” says Kylee. “They have always loved sports, but it was hard to go on a regular team. They were a little different and got frustrated easily.”

Kylee wanted to help her brothers, Ethan and Jaron, so she and her mom, Jenny Wunder, contacted UVU, which helped her create “Moving Mountains Soccer Camp.” This June was the third summer she has offered a two-day camp.

“We have a lot of volunteers, and they partner one-on-one with the kids,” Kylee says. “We provide training how to handle the autistic kids and how to respond to them. It’s amazing, but by the end of the two days they are closer to those little kids than they ever thought they could be." 

She may have only been 12 years old when she started the first camp, but she was able to get 100 volunteers signed up to help the approximately 80 campers who attended. 

Although the camp has grown yearly, Kylee does not consider the numbers significant. “It is not how many kids come, it is how many smiles I see,” she says. “I would rather have all of them happy.”

“I will walk around and make sure everyone is OK,” she says. “They are having the time of their lives. It is so awesome to see the connection between the campers and volunteers. They are best friends, and it is so cool.”

Autism Carnival

Increasing understanding

“The volunteers come away with a better understanding of autism,” Kylee says. “They didn’t quite realize what they were going through until the camp.”

Siboney Fowler is an adult who has helped the Wunder family put on the soccer camp. “It has changed our family for the better,” she says. “It helped me become a better mother and my kids, who have also helped, have changed. It was totally cool.

“I am more understanding at the grocery store if I hear a massive meltdown. I am more aware of the kids that I interact with in my church callings, and make more of an effort to understand what their needs are even if they aren’t autistic. This camp has made me a better person in the sense that I have learned to be more patient with those I come in contact with.”

As the volunteers participate, they learn more about those who are autistic and how to relate to them. And the word spreads.

Another example is a group of dental hygiene students who gained understanding and respect through their interaction.

“They had to come up with an activity they could do with individuals who had autism,” Bowen says. “They created a healthy teeth carnival. They had an opportunity to meet about 60 kids with autism. It is another win-win situation.”

Increasing the understanding about autism, what individuals may be facing, and how to respond has additional benefits for society.

“I feel like we have this amazing opportunity to help with bullying,” Bowen says. “If you get to have a one-on-one experience with someone and learn why they have different experiences with language and social impairment, you will be more understanding and compassionate.”

UVU’s lacrosse coach, Brian Barnhill, learned from Bowen that many autistic students had been bullied in their high schools — often by athletes. To help offset this, he had his players become allies at the center. Even with their busy schedules, they developed a love for the experience.

“We are committed to giving our student-athletes a much different experience beyond lacrosse,” Barnhill says. “Our program is designed to build our athletes as selfless leaders. We subsequently learned that it did much more for our lacrosse program than we had hoped.”

Team captain Chad Renslow says he gained a new perspective on service. “The Passages students were helping me become more selfless, and I realized these students genuinely care about other people,” he says.

Remington Peterson was initially hesitant to be an ally. “The first couple of times we went I really just stuck with the lacrosse guys — but the more we went and the more we bonded, it became an opportunity that I looked forward to every week and I really hope we get the opportunity to help out again,” he says. “I learned how to communicate and befriend someone who may be different from me, or who grew up in a different background than me. That is something I hope I can continue to use in my daily life.”

Barnhill says the players’ experiences were practical. “The odds are that these players more than likely will have someone in their family or circle of influence who will have a child with autism,” he says. “They will now have a better understanding of the challenges facing an individual on the autism spectrum and be able to have a positive, understanding influence on that person.”

built with love

“What we have in this community is unique,” Bowen says. “In this building, you see all the names of people who donated to build it — almost $8 million. It came from moms and dads and grandmas and grandpas. This might be the only building on campus that was built with love.”

UVU’s center is not the only resource available to families with members on the autism spectrum, but UVU often helps bring various resources together to better serve the public. As groups might otherwise compete for funding, UVU unites them.

“Everybody contributes so we can do something bigger,” Bowen says.

One example of that collaboration is an annual awareness event called an Uplifting Celebration for Autism. The first year, 400 individuals attended. There were games and activities. At the conclusion, the uplifting became literal as there was a balloon launch, with different colors of balloons representing various manifestations of the disorder.

At the celebration this spring, there were more than 1,300 attendees and 37 booths with games and activities.

Marty Matheson is the executive director of Scenic View Academy in Provo, Utah, which assists those with autism. He says he often refers families in need to UVU’s autism center, calling it a great resource. Those families come from the local area, across the state, even across the country. He told of one family from Vernal, Utah, that contacted him for help.

“I told a mom about the resources available at UVU for their 10-year-old son,” he says. “I let her know about the uplifting celebration, the carnival, and the soccer camp. She brought her family and participated in all three events. She felt comfort. Anything she needed she could come to the autism center at UVU. She immediately had a built-in support system. As a result, this family has now moved to Lehi to be closer to the center.”

As those at the center look back over the past year, they are also looking to the future.

“It is amazing to see how much has happened in this amount of time,” Bowen says. “I am excited to see where we go from here.”

Everybody contributes so we can do something bigger.