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.

"It was worth a lot to me," said Sundberg, who was teamed with the Bernals and wants to work as an occupational therapist with developmentally disabled children.

"It was probably my favorite class and also the one I learned the most from," Sundberg said. "You're actually going out and applying what you learn."

All students who sign up for the class must commit to the one-year family assignments, and Catford takes care to be sure they are prepared. She tells them it is not for "anybody looking for an easy class, or a book learning class."

Her aim, said Catford, herself the mother of an an autistic child, "is to scare away students that might not do a great job."

Diego Hall, a junior, is halfway through his commitment to an 8-year-old boy. He said they have developed a "real bond" through shooting baskets, talking about Pokemon, and playing cards.

"What I got out of it was 10,000 times more than I expected," Hall said.

About 50 families will be paired with students through the spring semester, Catford said.

The program struggles each year for funding, which is cobbled together from SSU funds, grants and, in recent years, donations from two families who give a total of $15,000 to help pay Catford to administer the program.

Other services CATS offers include a resource database, support groups, parent counseling and autism seminars.

"I know what it's like to be an overstressed parent," Catford said. "So one of my missions is to make our services virtually free for our families so they can get the support they need."

"It's just been tremendous," said Amy Breall of Sonoma, who sought out the program to support her 9-year-old son, Sam.

The student who worked with him focused on his motor skills, completing a 250-piece wooden train that Sam plans to enter in the Sonoma County Fair.

"It's not just about him, it's about his relationship with somebody else, and that's really important for kids with autism," Breall said.

"What I hoped to find was a friend for Sam," Breall said. "And if they were able to help him with some of his difficulties, then that would be wonderful. And they have."

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.