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Sally Rogers, PhD

Program Director

Dr. Rogers specializes in conducting developmental and treatment research into autism and other developmental disorders and working with children with developmental disabilities and their families, especially young children with autism. She studies early developmental processes, including imitation, social-communicative behavior, development of motor skills, language, and social interaction patterns.  She is currently focused on developing and improving treatments for early autism using a treatment model that she developed in collaboration with Geraldine Dawson, the Early Start Denver Model. Her efforts to deliver effective interventions to people with autism and their families takes her to places all over the globe, training therapists use ESDM in.  She is the primary scientist of a number of federal grants, including an NIH funded ACE Network grant involving a multisite randomized clinical trial comparing ESDM and discrete trial interventions, a study focused on how to help parents use ESDM techniques at home to improve their children's language and behavior, and a large postdoctoral training grant that she directs with Dr. Amaral. Her clinical interests include evaluation of cognitive, behavioral, social, emotional, and adaptive functioning; early intervention for children with autism; developing treatment and educational interventions for persons with autism of all ages, and social skills groups for adults with autism. She has written extensively in her field, authoring numerous articles and books and developing training videos. Dr. Rogers serves on the editorial board of many publications, including Autism Research, the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, and Infants and Young Children. She also reviews for many journals, including Child Development, Developmental Psychology, Science, American Journal of Mental Retardation, Journal of Early Intervention, Journal of Child Psychology and Child Psychiatry, and Development and Psychopathology. 


Vanessa Avila-Pons, MA, LMFT

Lead Trainer

Vanessa is the Treatment and Training Manager for the Collaborative Start Lab at the UC Davis MIND Institute. Vanessa has over 15 years of clinical experience working with children with autism and their families. Vanessa has worked at the MIND Institute since 2008, where she has delivered evidence-based treatments and has led treatment teams across several Autism Center for Excellence (ACE) grants.  Vanessa is the Social Work faculty member for the Northern California LEND (Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities) Program, where she helps build community partnerships and oversees community engagement for trainees. Vanessa is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) and received her master's degree in Counseling Psychology with an emphasis in Latino Counseling from Santa Clara University.  Vanessa is also a certified therapist, parent coach, and senior trainer of the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM). 


Rachel Balitsky, M.A., BCBA

Lead Trainer

Rachel is the Team Leader for the Connecting the Dots Study and ESDM MIND Clinic program. In her role as a Team Leader, Rachel is responsible for the oversight of ESDM treatment programs, supervision of RBTs, and delivery of parent coaching. Rachel has 15 years of experience working with children with autism. Rachel is both a certified ESDM Lead Trainer and certified ESDM Parent Coach. In her role on the ESDM training program, Rachel conducts several ESDM trainings a year and delivers parent training to parents of young children with autism. Rachel has a master’s degree in Teaching with an emphasis in Applied Behavior Analysis and is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst.    


Sarah Dufek, PhD, BCBA-D

Lead Trainer

Sarah Dufek, PhD, BCBA-D is a psychologist at the MIND Institute and an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology in Psychiatry at the University of California, Davis. She is a licensed psychologist and board-certified behavior analyst with expertise in the assessment and treatment of ASD across the lifespan. She has been working with children, adolescents, and adults with ASD and related developmental disabilities in clinical and research contexts since 2000. She has had formal training in and is actively practicing many intervention programs such as Pivotal Response Training (PRT), Classroom Pivotal Response Training (CPRT), Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), Project ImPACT, the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), and the Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS). In addition, during her postdoctoral training and subsequent faculty appointment at Weill Cornell Medical College, she received comprehensive training in the assessment and diagnosis of ASD and related conditions. She became a trainer for both the Autism Diagnostic Interview- Revised (ADI-R) and the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS-2) in 2014. She is also a trainer in a new measure, the Brief Observation of Social Communication Change (BOSCC), designed to assess change in ASD-specific symptoms over time.​


Deeniece Hatten, B.A.

Training Program Manager

Deeniece Hatten has worked at the UC Davis MIND Institute for 13 years and is currently the ESDM Training Program and ESDM Treatment Clinic manager in the Collaborative START Lab. As the Program Manager, Ms. Hatten oversees ESDM certifications, workshops, and day-to-day operations. She is also the primary liaison for all families participating in the ESDM Treatment Clinic and Connecting the Dots study. Deeniece has earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology from the California State University, Sacramento. Ms. Hatten is currently working on her master’s degree in sociology. She is researching the effects of language used in Black households and its impact on socio-economic status.  

Mel Mello, Ph.D., BCBA

Lead Trainer

Mel works on multiple projects in the Collaborative START Lab, including TEAMS, BRIDGE, and the ESDM training program. Mel has been working with children with autism for the past 16 years in a variety of settings, including as a special education teacher and early interventionist delivering one on one intervention in community-based programs. For the past 12 years, Mel has been supervising early intervention programs as a Clinical Manager, using behaviorally based, empirically validated methods to ensure children with autism improve their behavior, language, and social skills at home and in the classroom. Mel is certified in the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), Classroom Pivotal Response Teaching (CPRT), and Project ImPACT and has trained both locally and internationally as a certified ESDM trainer. Melissa has a master’s degree in Special Education from San Francisco State University and is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and doctoral candidate.  

Marie L. Rocha, PhD, BCBA-D

Lead Trainer

Dr. Rocha is a certified ESDM therapist, parent coach and senior trainer, leading multiple training workshops annually. In addition to her extensive training in ESDM, Dr. Rocha has over 15 years of experience using behaviorally based, empirically validated, autism intervention methods in a variety of community settings. As a board-certified behavior analyst and experienced clinical supervisor, Dr. Rocha provides ongoing behavior analytic supervision to the clinical team. Her research to date has focused on developing and evaluating naturalistic behavior analytic techniques, including parent education models. Her clinical experience includes supervising home and school-based behavioral intervention programs in both research and community settings. Dr. Rocha received her master’s degree and doctorate in Psychology at the University of California, San Diego and has worked with Dr. Rogers since 2008.

Aubyn Stahmer, PhD

Lead Trainer

​Aubyn is an associate professor in Psychiatry from a similar position at UC San Diego. Aubyn received her Ph.D. under Dr. Laura Schreibman at UCSD and has spent her research career developing and testing interventions for young children with autism, developing integrated toddler day programs, testing improvements in public school classrooms that support children with ASD, and conducting dissemination and implementation studies of empirically supported treatments in community settings. She is a licensed psychologist and a board-certified behavior analyst with expertise in Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT), and Early Start Denver Model, and a wide range of other interventions as well.  She is widely considered to be one of the most experienced intervention researchers in ASD, with a host of publications and a recently published text on use of PRT in public school settings with children with ASD.

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