Melisa Nellesen Center for Autism at UVU Leads the Way in Autism Education and Care

April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day, and the Melisa Nellesen Center for Autism at UVU is here to improve the quality of life for those living and working with autism spectrum disorder.


Rachel Leonard was unofficially diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome — now understood as part of the autism spectrum — when she was seven years old. As a child growing up in California, she got frustrated easily when events differed from their planned order. Bullies at school noticed her struggles and targeted her. Some days, she would simply sit in the bathroom during recess and cry.

“My mother tells me how I used to come running to her when she came to pick me up from school and just scream at her, like I was letting off steam by doing so,” Leonard says. “It was then that my parents knew something was different about me, and they took me to see a psychiatrist. After running some tests on me, the psychiatrist told my parents that it was more than likely I had Asperger’s syndrome.”

Leonard’s family moved from California to Idaho, but her difficulties didn’t stop as she transitioned through high school and into college, where she battled depression, diminished motivation, and failing grades. She eventually found an aptitude and passion for American Sign Language and earned an associate degree from North Idaho College. As she considered where to complete a bachelor’s degree, she discovered that Utah Valley University offered a minor in autism studies.

“I was actually looking for information about the deaf studies program and came across the minor,” Leonard says. “The other two colleges offered maybe one or two classes in autism studies, but I was blown away that UVU had a full minor for the subject. UVU immediately went to the top of my list, and I applied to the university without even visiting campus.”

Leonard plans to graduate from UVU this year, thanks in part to support from the Melisa Nellesen Center for Autism. The center opened its doors in 2017 as the first building on UVU campus built solely with donated funds. Its mission is to improve the quality of life for those living and working with autism spectrum disorder by preparing students for professional careers in the field, providing evidence-based services and education, and fostering a community of belonging.

Today, April 2, is World Autism Awareness Day, and April is Autism Awareness Month. One in every 160 people in the world is estimated to be on the autism spectrum, a term that refers to a variety of developmental disorders that involve difficulties with social interactions and repetitive thought or behavior patterns.

In Utah, however, that number is much higher: one in every 54 people is on the autism spectrum. And though it is often thought of as a childhood condition, and intensive early intervention is key, many people on the autism spectrum are not diagnosed until they are adults. Support for the autism community beyond UVU classes and child-centered resources is a key part of the center’s mission.

“Living with autism requires consideration and support in a myriad of areas,” says Laurie Bowen, associate director of the Melisa Nellesen Center for Autism. “By combining expert perspectives of those who are most significantly impacted by the diagnosis, we are better equipped to develop, implement, and improve services and supports designed for the individual and family living with autism in our communities.”

“A unique part of the Center for Autism's mission is our community focus,” says Jane Carlson, director of the Melisa Nellesen Center for Autism. “Our donors’ gifts have allowed us to create partnerships and sponsor events to create connections in our community for individuals with autism and their families.”

Rachel Leonard

Along with the minor in autism studies that UVU offers, students studying applied behavior analysis or special education also benefit from the center, which provides engaged-learning opportunities through laboratory classrooms.

In fact, UVU’s applied behavior analysis program boasts a 100% pass rate, compared to the national average of 65%.

“I never imagined taking one ‘Understanding Autism’ class years ago would have led to this amazing opportunity,” says special education teacher Brylie Mason. “The center has been an amazing place to learn about how to support the children I work with and their families. I love working in a place where everyone knows and welcomes the differences that come with my class.”

The Melisa Nellesen Center for Autism provides a variety of services that are not limited to UVU students or personnel. The Wolverines Elevated program is a three-year certificate program for young adults with intellectual disabilities. Individuals ages 18-25 with intellectual disabilities are welcome to apply. The center’s Passages services are designed to assist young adults with autism spectrum disorder in navigating the numerous areas of transitions related to adulthood. Services include classes and workshops designed to empower and increase self-determination and other necessary skills for independent living.

Educational coaching is available for UVU students who are on the autism spectrum. Other training and education are provided for various professionals who interact with the autism population, such as first responders and medical personnel.

The center provides a year-round schedule of events, including an annual autism conference, an “uplifting celebration” event for families that includes a massive balloon release, the Moving Mountains Soccer Camp during the summer, and many others.

“The Melisa Nellesen Center for Autism is the vortex of hope and inclusion,” says UVU alumnus Michael Davies. “There is nothing but positivity and love from the minute you walk through those doors. My life has been greatly enriched by what the center has provided.”