Autism training program helps families, students

  • Malia Bernal reads a book with her autistic son Ivan, 3, in their Santa Rosa home, Dec. 23, 2011. The book, which documented the relationship between Ivan and the Collaborative Austism Training and Support student Stevie Jo Sundberg, was something Sundberg made for Ivan to remind him of their time together. (CRISTA JEREMIASON / PRESS DEMOCRAT)

The end of the week used to weigh heavily on Malia Bernal, the mother of an energetic toddler with autism.

“Friday used to be the hardest day of the week,” Bernal said, recalling how planning daily activities to keep Ivan engaged, happy and learning would leave her exhausted.

“I'd be laying in bed thinking how am I going to get through,” she said.

Then a friend in a support group for parents of autistic children told her about the Collaborative Autism Training and Support program at Sonoma State University’s psychology department.

The program, known as CATS, pairs students who are studying autism with families like Bernal's. Soon, SSU senior Stevie Jo Sundberg, as part of a one-year assignment, was spending Friday afternoons with Ivan.

“I kind of thought it would offer some extra support,” said Bernal, 27, of Santa Rosa. “But it's been pretty much life changing.”

The family and Sundberg took day trips. Bernal got some much-needed respite. Ivan, now 3-years-old, made great strides in learning.

“Fridays,” Bernal said, “turned out to be our best day of the week.”

Lorna Catford, a SSU psychology lecturer who runs the department's internship program, started CATS in 2005.

“Parents started contacting me, saying, ‘I'm desperate, I have a kid on the autism spectrum. Please, can you send me an intern who can help me,'” Catford said.

She teamed up with the North Bay Regional Center, a nonprofit that provides services to developmentally disabled people, to create a program that would both educate students and support families with autistic children.

“Ideally, it's a mutual education process where the students learn from the parents and the child and the parents learn from the student,” Catford said.

The program now collaborates with 18 other local autism agencies and the California Parenting Institute. It has worked with about 250 families since it was formed and there is now a wait list of about 20 families going into the spring semester. Students have put in more than 15,000 combined hours.

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