Building better futures for adults with autism
By April Towery
Many Americans have a limited knowledge of autism as it is portrayed on television and film. We saw “Rain Man” when it was released in 1988. We like the character on “The Good Doctor” and root for him to have a successful relationship. We know that sometimes children with autism can be highly intelligent, slightly anti-social, and reticent to express emotions.
But what about those in the moderate range of the spectrum, those who don’t count toothpicks or earn PhDs? What happens when they grow up but still live in their parents’ home? Will they ever be able to drive a car, fall in love, or find success in the workforce? What can parents, businesses, and community leaders do to help?
Gary Moore of Murphy was faced with that conundrum years ago. His son Andrew, now 24, has autism.
“What I knew about autism was ‘Rain Man,’” said Moore, who worked in professional consulting for more than 20 years.
In 2008, Moore met with Dan Selec, whose child also has autism, and began brainstorming ideas for how to intellectually stimulate men and women with autism post-high school. The men had a particular interest in using – as a starting point – the passion that young men and women with autism sometimes have for playing video games.
“Had we started out with gardening, cooking, or automotive classes, we would not have attracted as many people,” Moore explained. “Video games are hard to build and hard to sell. We’re still building video games but we’ve also expanded into other areas that realistically offer more opportunities for our crew members. They have much more talent, passion and vision than just video games.”
Technical skills are offered in courses like design, 3D modeling, animation, and programming.
Selec began teaching a few adults with autism in his kitchen as “proof of concept” in summer 2009. Nonpareil was approved as a 501(c)(3) the following year after receiving a large donation of about $250,000.
Selec and Moore met with Dr. Peter Raad, founder of the Southern Methodist University Guildhall. Raad was moved by what they were trying to do and offered space on the SMU campus in Plano, where nonPareil opened its first training center for eight students.
The name nonPareil (no parallel, no equal) represents the uniqueness of the institute’s students.
Now more than 220 adults with autism receive instruction at nonPareil campuses in Plano, Houston, Orlando and Austin. Each campus follows the same model and is governed by a board of directors.
Many students have stayed on to work at nonPareil after completing their classes and are now working on projects outsourced to the nonprofit. One such project is an educational game about safety that nonPareil students are working on for Oncor Electric Delivery Company.
Back to school
April is Autism Awareness Month, and it’s the hope of those in the autism community that the general public will seize that opportunity to boost personal knowledge of the neurological and developmental disorder.
About 1 million children and 2 million adults in the U.S. are autistic, with a ratio of about five men to one woman.
The autism spectrum ranges in terms of IQ and social skills – from non-verbal to high-functioning Asperger’s Syndrome.
“My son is really different from the next student at nonPareil,” Moore said. “They’re not all geniuses. A few of them have genius IQ, but they may not be good with interpersonal communication or sensory skills. They may be a savant in math or history. Many have a proclivity for video games, and many love technology. That was the hook to start nonPareil. They learn how to build video games.”
But not all the students there are able to build video games or are interested; it’s one of many programs offered. They also learn “soft skills” like leadership and teamwork.
Over the years since its inception, nonPareil has published more than 15 games and smartphone applications available for download, in addition to books and comics sold on Amazon and iBooks.
“[Designing and building video games] is competitive. It’s hard to make money,” Moore explained. “They learn how to do other things like fixing your computer or setting up your home wireless network.”
It’s the hope of Moore and other nonPareil board members that the classes offer more than career advancement.
“Many nonPareil students do not drive or have a job,” Moore said. “[My son] Andrew is right in the middle. He’s probably going to be on a slower trajectory that will take years of growing and developing. He loves computers. He’s an expert at video games.”
Classes are offered at a cost, similar to college tuition but much less expensive than public universities. Scholarships are offered.
“We don’t do testing and grades,” Moore explained. “They still have deadlines and schedules. They have to meet goals and outcomes.”
The program implements small-group courses and on-on-one instruction to teach industry standard skills.
“These skills are developed across the technical, soft skill and community pillars of the program,” the website states. “The program is implemented in a real-world workplace environment where students learn not only the technical skills needed to succeed, but the core workplace readiness and professional skills needed.”
While some nonPareil students go on to college, many become employed, and the impacts are great for students at any level, and for their families.
“I’ve had hundreds of letters, cards and emails [from family members of nonPareil students], stating how thankful they are for the positive impact on their child,” Moore said. “This is about self-esteem, dignity and self-confidence. We help them navigate life better.”
Kyle McNiece entered nonPareil as a crew member in July 2009. He now works there as a full-time instructor and developer.
“NonPareil gave me the opportunity of a future at a time when I felt like I didn’t have one,” McNiece said. “It’s opened my way of thinking to really know what it takes to work in a professional environment even with the accommodations that we offer for students and staff. I wouldn’t have been able to get the same experience anywhere else.”
Being involved at nonPareil has allowed him to make connections he would not have made if working at a grocery store or restaurant, McNiece added.
“The people and businesses I have been able to connect with by being a part of nonPareil have greatly influenced my engagement with my goals, life, and new and old friends alike,” he said.
Into the future
Since nonPareil opened in Plano 10 years ago, the founders have seen a demand for institutes elsewhere. The Houston campus opened just over four years ago, and the Austin and Orlando sites followed suit a little less than a year ago.
“[Representatives from] 60 cities and 10 countries have contacted me,” Moore said.
While the concept of teaching technology skills to autistic adults – and specifically the nonPareil model – has been covered by national media, on any given day a friend or neighbor in Collin County will tell Moore they had no idea this specified education was offered so close to home.
Future opportunities include “more general technical training culminating in an IT certification, as well as partnering with companies that want to provide internships and employment for our students upon completion of their training,” the nonPareil website states.
Because of the television and movie exposure, “there’s a perception that it’s not that bad,” Moore said. That’s something they’d like to work on, through public education about how adults with autism can thrive with specialized, personal instruction.
The male to female ratio at nonPareil is pretty lopsided – about 10 women for every 120 students – for a couple of reasons. One, women in general are not as interested in video games or technical skills. Also, there are fewer women than men with autism, or their diagnosis may be delayed.
“Girls with autism tend to fly under the radar,” Moore said. “They have better social skills than men do, whether they’re autistic or not.”
The institute operates with the motto, “All for one and one for all,” creating a “community” atmosphere for students, their parents and siblings.
“Everyone in the family is affected,” Moore explained.
“Each campus has extensive opportunities for students to develop meaningful relationships, gain friends, and expand their social network through various clubs, organizations and community events,” states nonPareil Institute. “These interest-based activities are often student-initiated and provide additional opportunities to become a leader among friends and colleagues.”
For more information, visit npusa.org