Meet Dr. Nate Shanok, Research Coordinator at Els for Autism®, but beyond that, a Game Changer.
By Merrick Egber
One of the most critical roles in proving that a new program or service works is individuals conducting research, hence the term ‘evidence-based practice.’
Dr. Nate Shanok has been doing integral research with us for many years, including the Ernie Els #GameON Autism® Sports programs. His newest paper, which he worked on with Dr. Erin Lozott, Dr. Christine Honsberger, Dr. Magda Mostafa, Dr. Toby Honsberger, and Dr. Marlene Sotelo, called “The Impact of ASPECTSS®-Based Design Intervention in Autism School Design” about the design of The Els Center of Excellence®, was published in the prestigious Q1 International Journal of Architectural Research.
I spoke with Dr. Shanok about his start with us, his interest in autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and his research interest. We also discussed what he has outside of work with us that still allows him to be a game-changer. Lastly, I asked him about the Fore Autism Podcast he cohosts with me.
How did you get involved with the Els for Autism Foundation®?
“As a Florida Atlantic University (FAU) graduate student in 2018, I conducted a thesis project examining facial emotion recognition and brain activity responses in preschool-aged children with ASD. As the project finished, I connected with Dr. Maryellen Quinn-Lunney and Dr. Jack Scott of the FAU Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (FAU CARD). They referred me to the executive director at Els for Autism, Dr. Marlene Sotelo, to become involved with her team as a researcher.”
What interested you in researching for us? What research are you working on?
“My interest in autism research dates back to my childhood in Chicago. In middle school, I had a friend with autism who amazed me with his ability to hyperfocus on anything about sports. He was the equivalent of a walking ESPN anchor and could impressively name the entire roster of all 30 NBA teams. This individual also had an interesting way of seeing the world, which helped to fuel my interest in understanding human behavior with the factors that make each of us unique. As I continued to get more involved with the field of psychology, autism became one of my primary interests because it is increasingly common, has a very diverse behavioral phenotype, and ties in well with the field of neuropsychology.
I initially worked on a collaboration project between Els for Autism and the Seaver Autism Center, which examined EEG (electroencephalogram) and eye-tracking biomarkers in toddlers with ASD with the impact of an early parent-child interaction intervention on these traits. Since then, I have been primarily involved with studying the stellar program offerings at Els for Autism, including the Ernie Els #GameON Autism Golf program, Ernie Els #GameON Autism Tennis program, and the RUBI (Research Units in Behavioral Intervention) parent-training program. I also worked on a manual to help other autism learning centers adapt our recreational tennis program for their clients.”
How has working with Els for Autism supported you as a researcher?
“I am extremely grateful to Els for Autism for the opportunities and support they have provided me since I was a graduate student at FAU. They have allowed me to work on important autism research projects that developed into publications in journals, such as Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders and Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Additionally, I have been very fortunate to work under the supervision of Dr. Marlene Sotelo and Dr. Erin Brooker Lozott. They have supported my advancement as a professional from day one and taught me many valuable lessons relating to leadership, communication, and diligence. I have also been a tennis coach and a podcast co-host with my good friend Merrick Egber.”
You were our previous tennis coach; why did you feel tennis would be good sports-related therapy to help individuals with autism?
“Coaching tennis at Els for Autism was easily one of the best experiences of my life. I’ve played tennis since I was five years old and competed at a high level until I finished college. Playing tennis puts me in a complete flow state, and I lose track of time when playing. It has always been therapeutic for me. When I finished my career, I lost a lot of my passion for the game, and I felt like something was missing in my life. Watching the clients involved with the tennis program jump for joy after hitting a shot into the target or winning a point against the coach was highly rewarding for me. Learning the game of tennis was such an enjoyable experience for these kids that it helped reignite my passion for the game, and I have been playing a lot more lately. Tennis is particularly advantageous as a recreational activity for individuals with autism because it offers the opportunity to learn fine motor skills while getting beneficial cardiovascular training. Additionally, tennis can alleviate a lot of stress. Because it is only a two-player sport, it allows the students a great opportunity to go out and hit with a parent or friend outside of the structured classes.”
How have our programs impacted the autism community?
“The Ernie Els #GameON Autism Golf program and Ernie Els #GameON Autism Tennis program have highlighted the importance of sport and fitness training for individuals with autism. We have found that these programs improve various health and fitness measures and fine motor functioning. Additionally, there are numerous psychological benefits for participants, including improved social skills, boosted receptive and expressive communication, and increased regulatory abilities. These programs are infused with autism-learning objectives, which offer a unique opportunity for students to train some of their social skills while participating in a relaxed, recreational setting. Most importantly, the program is fun, and students feel accomplished when they can improve their game.”
Can you tell us about the Fore Autism Podcast? Why was it valuable to co-host a podcast that is an official podcast for the Foundation?
“The Fore Autism podcast started as two friends (Merrick Egber and I) enjoyed speaking about pop culture, autism news and research, and Els for Autism events (almost as much as we enjoyed eating lunch). We believed that our regular lunchtime conversations could make a compelling podcast show where we could interview some of our coworkers and discuss the exciting developments at the Els for Autism Foundation while also having a “World of Autism” discussion segment. I am very proud to still be a co-host of the podcast along with Merrick. We have been able to cover many inspiring stories. We have also helped spread awareness of autism and the many resources in South Florida and nationally that individuals with this condition and their families can access. The podcast has gone through many iterations over the years, but I’m thrilled that Merrick and I still get to record these shows monthly. Please check it out when you have a chance!”
What do you hope to do with us in the future?
“I hope to continue collaborating with the foundation for many years to come. I want to continue to study our tennis and golf programs and their impact on participants and their families. I wish to continue to spread the word about Els for Autism to the broader autism community through research manuscripts, presentations, and podcasts.”
When you are not working with Els for Autism, what are you working on?
“I have been the director of the Delray Center for Brain Science for the past two years, an outpatient neuropsychology center specializing in depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD, Alzheimer’s disease, and traumatic brain injury. We perform brain activity mappings and brain-based therapeutics such as transcranial magnetic stimulation and neurofeedback. I also recently published a book titled “Pursuing Purpose: A Neuropsychological Approach to Maximize Life and Enjoy the Process,” which offers a modernized approach to finding purpose in life and recovering from depression or existential crisis.”
I want to thank Dr. Nate Shanok, who has brought significant wisdom and experience in the complex science of ASD.
To view all of our published research click Here