Jeanette Garcia, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Sciences, is leading studies to better understand the behavior of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and help change their lives.

“People tend to underestimate kids with autism spectrum disorder,” she says. “[They] can do everything a typically developing kid can do, they might just learn it differently or communicate it differently.”

Creating a space for each child to tap into their potential is exactly what Garcia does in her 12-week programs in partnership with local schools and other organizations.

Each program is unique and shaped to be as effective as possible within the school or organization. These diverse programs adhere to one goal: provide children who have disabilities with the opportunity to master various physical and nutritional skills. Garcia is dedicated to ensuring the longevity of these programs. For her, the programs are stepping stones that enable long-lasting, positive physical and nutritional health behaviors.

One of Garcia’s programs involves teaching children judo. The program motivates children with autism spectrum disorder to stretch their physical and social skills.

“Their confidence improves,” says Garcia, “and the social interaction makes them happier.”

Another program assessed health behaviors through the use of a Fitbit activity-tracker device. This particular program was very successful in providing measurable data while also encouraging children to exercise regularly. She found the Fitbit devices were very popular and acted as positive reinforcements for physical-health routines even after the program was complete.

A more recent program gives high school students access to cooking classes. This program emphasizes the importance of teaching older students how to be independent while also aiding in basic nutrition education. Healthy habits are essential to physical and nutritional wellness, Garcia says.

She is also interested in helping the next generation of scientists learn how to conduct community-based research.

“I have had students with no interest in research come to me and then have the desire to go to grad school to pursue research,” she says. “That’s really satisfying.”

Garcia understands she’s a role model to many and knows sometimes women run into challenges, especially in STEM fields.  “Sometimes I had to work harder to be taken seriously,” she says. “The STEM field is steadily growing and encouraging the efforts of a diverse group of individuals, both men and women, but there are still changes to be made. As long as you keep pushing and know you can do it people will eventually take you seriously.”

Some of her work has drawn attention from around the globe. But that’s just the beginning. She dreams of one day establishing a center for children with autism spectrum disorder to improve physical and psychosocial health. She envisions not only those in the scientific field, but also experts from other disciplines collaborating to enable a well-rounded approach for meeting the needs of the children.