*Note: This post was initially posted on the now discontinued Dallas Moms Blog on October 20, 2010.*
If you’re anything like me, your worries for your children don’t stop at today or tomorrow or even next week or month, they extend well into the future. Whether you’re raising a child with or without a disability, you’re probably actively making important plans for the future. Those of us raising children with special needs are often quite uncertain as to what the future will hold for our precious kiddos. Much of my concern about Ethan’s future (now 7-years-old) relates to how we might better help Ethan find success in higher education and later in establishing and maintaining a rewarding career. I know that many parents raising children like Ethan, with Asperger’s Syndrome or High Functioning Autism, share these concerns. We all see tremendous potential in our kids and simply want them to succeed and find joy in what they choose to do in life!
For that reason, I was thrilled to hear about the cutting-edge nonPareil Institute.non Pareil (nP) is taking a novel approach to working with adults on the spectrum in an on-the-job training program for technology- and gaming-related careers. The name “nonPareil” means “unparalleled.” nP is the first Institute of its kind.
Many times young adults on the spectrum have an innate knack for technology, but too often are not encouraged to build on this interest as they transition from high school into college or into the work force. nP takes this acute interest and natural skill with computers/technology/gaming and offers a different instructional and work environment which promotes acceptance, builds self-esteem and supports dignity.
According to Gary Moore, President and co-founder of nP, since much of the neurotypical world is not extremely accepting and accommodating of adults with Autism, there is a high rate of depression and suicide. Many young adults with ASD, even though they are bright, capable and eager, are unable to score and hold down “mainstream” jobs (like filling salt and pepper shakers in restaurants).
I can see why mainstream jobs could prove challenging in at least two ways. First, some of our young adults on the spectrum are simply not equipped to handle the intricate social system of some work environments nor are the work environments accommodating of these individuals’ diverse needs. Secondly, jobs (like salt/pepper shaker filling or bagging groceries at the supermarket) are far from stimulating or rewarding to these individuals. We all desire to work in jobs that fulfill us, right? Why would we expect anything different from individuals on the spectrum? Simply put, we shouldn’t.
That is why nonPareil’s approach to “education” is so refreshing. The students, ranging in age from 18 to 50+, work together in small group sessions led by nP’s other co-founder and CEO, Dan Selec, to build fundamental technical skills and knowledge. Everyone at nP values the students’ differences and the instructors focus on building upon the each individual’s strengths and abilities – as opposed to accentuating their disabilities.
Dan dreamed up nP in 2007. He started the Institute in 2008 to expose students to different technologies and tools in order to help them find their niche. Dan shares that nP implements a “mission of love and technology” that “meets students where they are and teaches them right there.” Both Dan and Gary are parents of children diagnosed with ASD. Their love and respect for this population is palpable; what they are doing for this group of adults is noteworthy, courageous and inspiring.
Once students have a foundation of knowledge and skill, they are encouraged to work independently on projects. Many students are currently working on designing iPhone and iPad apps and creating game maps (aka – new levels) for existing computer and video games. One nP student is close to making her first iPhone app sell…she is responsible for the entire project, including design, programming and art!
At nP, Dan and the other instructors work to gently guide students but ultimately allow them to decide what they wish to work on. When they’re creating a product, Dan helps them see how society might view it. Ultimately though, the power is in the students’ hands as they are encouraged to “bring their vision of what they want into the world,” says Dan. This I love! When I look at our society’s major advancements from the past to the present, it is often the forward-thinkers and out-of-the-box brilliant minds who have been instrumental in designing necessary change and advancements. nP is educating, nurturing and mentoring some of society’s out-of-the-box brilliant minds, right here in the DFW area!
nP has recently been recognized as a revolutionary new model for a self-sustaining non-profit organization. The games and apps sold by nP students while attending the institute will eventually go toward sustaining the program. Students pay a monthly tuition to attend nP classes and lab time held on the SMU Plano campus. In the current location, nP has about 20 students presently enrolled, but can accommodate up to 50 students.
With a large expansion planned for 2011, nP will be able to expand beyond 50 students and will be able to offer students more daily hours on the equipment. But, in order to make that happen, more funding is simply a must. Click to read more about the expansion plans or to learn how to make a much-needed donation.
At nP, smart students – many of them afraid of failing at yet another typical school or work setting – are allowed to succeed. More importantly, they cannot fail! It is students’ individual strengths that guide the direction of their program. When they leave nP, they will be armed with: work-force experience in a career which encourages creative self-expression; a community of co-workers with similar interests/goals; and a taste of sweet success. You have to admit – that’s powerful!