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Dr. Nikko S. Da Paz, BCBA

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UC Merced article by Cyndee Fontana-Ott, University Communications

June 14, 2016

 

When Nikko Da Paz decided to go to graduate school, she didn’t limit herself to one degree — or even one campus.

The mother of two young children with autism enrolled at UC Merced in 2011, and in May she became the university’s first African American student to earn a Ph.D. While completing her doctorate at UC Merced, she was simultaneously enrolled at California State University, Stanislaus, where she completed a master’s in psychology with a concentration in applied behavior analysis. Both campuses are roughly an hour’s drive from her Los Banos home.

Through those high-mileage academic years, Da Paz relied upon a supportive husband, prayer, and a dry erase board that helped organize her thoughts and a multitude of tasks. She capped it all by handling her thesis and dissertation defenses just a few days apart.

Da Paz said she’s excited to be the first African American to earn a doctorate at UC Merced but said that was never her motivation. Her research, in psychology, examined stress levels for parents of children with autism. 

 

“My inspiration is the families and children that I serve," said Da Paz.

From engineering to working with kids with autism Da Paz earned an undergraduate degree at Stanford University. She intended to major in electrical engineering but switched her focus after beginning to work with children diagnosed with autism.

 

With a bachelor’s degree in psychology, she worked in schools as an inclusion specialist and classroom aide for children with autism. Da Paz enjoyed the work but said the chronic discord between parents and educators was stressful. 

 

“It was always a war, us against them, and it was hard for me to ethically sit in the middle of it,” she said. Da Paz left to pursue other jobs, such as a guest lecturer at the University of Ghana in West Africa and a researcher in childhood obesity prevention at Stanford University.

 

The birth of her son Evilasio in 2005 brought about more change. When he was 2, she began to notice familiar signs, such as lack of speech and eye contact. 

 

“Then everything I knew about autism, everything I saw, came flooding back,” said Da Paz, who also has two adult children. Giving parents a voice Da Paz quit her job to focus on Evilasio, who is now 10 and homeschooled. Her youngest son, 8-year-old Emilio, also has been diagnosed with autism, but is mainstreamed into regular education. 

 

In returning to that world, she found little had changed. For example, parents were still expected to navigate complex systems to get help for their child while also dealing with the difficult emotions of an autism diagnosis. 

 

“Inspired by my son and by my experiences as a parent, I understood

and recognized that parents need a voice,” she said. “They are often

the overlooked part of the equation.”

 

Da Paz chose UC Merced for her doctoral studies. She was part of a small cohort and prized the opportunity to work with professors who were accessible and generous in their mentoring and teaching styles.

 

“It was such a valuable experience that I don’t think I would have gotten at a larger university,” she said. In part, Da Paz’s research involved measuring parents’ cortisol levels — an indicator of stress — and asking them to write about traumatic experiences to explore the impact of that approach.

 

The expressive writing had a positive effect on stress levels, said UC Merced Professor Jitske Tiemensma — one of Da Paz’s two advisers, along with Professor Jan Wallander. While the project was complex and involved many components, including calling parents twice daily to remind them to collect saliva samples, Tiemensma said Da Paz was highly organized.

 

“She is amazing,” Tiemensma said. “She is one of the best students I have ever worked with, and she’s some sort of Wonder Woman to do a master’s and doctorate at the same time.”

At CSU Stanislaus, Da Paz pursued her master’s degree with an applied behavior analysis concentration to ensure she would qualify to provide that form of treatment to children with autism.

 

In 2014, Da Paz was appointed by the Governor of California to the regional board of the California State Council on Developmental Disabilities. She has connected with researchers at UC San Francisco to continue her work on caregiving stress for parents of children with autism. She also plans to open a private practice to offer more resources to underserved families and communities. 

 

“There’s so much that I have seen, experienced, and learned,” she said. “I want to be able to share that.”

Source: UC Merced, University News: Dedicated Students Breaks Ground

Evilasio Da Paz ,9, right, with his mother, Dr. Nikko Da Paz. Evilasio was diagnosed with Autism at age 3.

Article by Anna B. Ibarra, Merced Sun Star

July 31, 2015

Parents of children with autism deal with great amounts of stress. Nikko Da Paz, a Los Banos resident, can tell you.

 

Da Paz is the mother of a 9-year-old diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. She also happens to be leading a new study at UC Merced that looks at the mental and physical distress faced by parents of children with autism spectrum disorder.

Da Paz, a doctoral student in psychological sciences, said the objective of her research is to expand the understanding of the disorder and get the parent-health perspective – an angle that is often overlooked.

“There may be a multitude of services, but none of those services 

are geared toward parents and their mental health," Da Paz said.

Parents of children with autism, she said, can experience stress levels much higher than parents of children without the disorder.

Through a journal-writing intervention, Da Paz and her research assistants survey parents, mostly mothers, from Merced, Mariposa, Madera and Fresno counties. The study collects and evaluates parents’ measurements of blood pressure, resting heart rate and salivary cortisol, which contains a stress hormone.

Parents are also asked questions about their perceptions of the disorder, their strain and their concerns. Researchers then correlate the parents’ health measurements with their responses. So far, researchers have collected testimonies from about 80 parents and continue to gather information.

Regarding stress, 80 percent of parents reported that they have felt nervous and stressed in the past month. Sixty-three percent of the parents indicated that their child gets upset easily over the smallest thing, while 59 percent report that their child makes more demands on them than most children.

Da Paz has worked with children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders since the 1980's. As a research project manager at Stanford’s Prevention Research Center, she also studied chronic diseases, such as childhood obesity. Last year, Da Paz was appointed to the California State Council on Developmental Disabilities.

Her interest in parent perception began when her son was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3. She soon learned that a caregiver’s health is just as important as the child’s.

"If the parent does not have good mental health, that affects their ability

to implement intervention for their child," said Da Paz.

Da Paz is working under the supervision of UC Merced health psychology professors Jan Wallander and Jitske Tiemensma.

“It’s a challenging situation to be in,” Wallander said. “Raising children with these needs can create high levels of physical and psychological stress.”

Wallander explained that in the long run, findings of research such as this can lead to publications that can be used by professionals who work with parents of children with autism. Written disclosure activities, such as the one Da Paz is conducting, he said, can aid these professionals in developing coping mechanisms to reduce stress.

Isolation is also a very common feeling for parents of children with autism, Da Paz explained. Many times parents lack support, and feel as is they’re on their own. Da Paz said it does not help that society is quick to judge parental skills. Because children diagnosed with autism look like any other child, people may not think of the possibility of autism.

Da Paz recalls a time when she used to carry cards in her purse everywhere she went. The cards contained reassuring phrases such as “My child is not misbehaving, my child has autism.” This was one of her coping strategies.

One time, while in a store’s dressing room, her son was “having a moment,” Da Paz shared. As she allowed her son to calm himself down, concerned store employees checked in with her twice. As soon as she handed them the card that explained her son’s autism, the mood changed and people offered help, she said.

 

“When people know and when they understand, it’s easier to get that support,” Da Paz said. “Sharing knowledge has been helpful.”

It’s not uncommon for parents to apologize and hurry away from a public setting when their child is having a meltdown.

“Most of the time, parents are just trying to do the best they can," said Da Paz.

Even with extreme amounts of stress, the ongoing survey shows that parents try to find positive ways to cope. Forty-nine percent of the parents found comfort in religion or spiritual beliefs, and 57 percent prayed or meditated. About 46 percent report participating in activities to think about their situation less, such as going to the movies, watching TV, reading or shopping. Less than 10 percent reported turning to alcohol or other drugs.

Source: Merced Sun Star: UC Merced study sheds light on challenges faced by parents