Jan 19, 2012 0 Share

Designing the Future: nonPareil Institute

See video

Cheryl O’Brien had worked as a draftsman, technician and electrical engineer before taking time off from the world of work to raise her children. But when O’Brien was ready to return to work, she could not get hired because of her poor interviewing skills. Diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome as an adult, she had trouble understanding office politics and fitting in socially. Never mind that she had an electrical engineering degree. “No one believed I could do the work or fit in with their group,” said O’Brien, 51, of Allen, Texas. O’Brien ended up getting four part-time jobs to make ends meet—two paper routes, a gig as a crossing guard and a billing clerk position.

Kyle McNiece worked as a bagger and cashier at a grocery store. Then he dispensed coffee for customers at a car dealership. Then he bused tables at a Mexican restaurant. These jobs did not challenge his technologically-savvy mind. “The jobs weren’t going anywhere and I wasn’t doing what I really wanted to do,” said McNiece, 23, of Plano, Texas, who also has Asperger syndrome.

O’Brien and McNiece are now embarking on careers thanks to the Plano-based nonprofit nonPareil Institute. Founded in 2009, nonPareil—which means having no equal—is a nonprofit program that trains high-functioning adults with autism ages 18 and older on different aspects of video game and app design and development at a pace each student can manage. The institute is based at Southern Methodist University, which has a renowned graduate program in gaming design and development. While run independently, nP collaborates with SMU and other universities.

“There is a 90 percent unemployment rate for adults with autism,” said Gary Moore, who founded nP with Dan Selec. Both are information technology industry veterans and parents of teenagers with autism. “Many people with autism have the intellectual capacity to do the work, but their social and sensory issues prevent them from going into the [white collar] workforce,” Moore said. “We think we have figured out the solution to train them with marketable skills that will generate more than a minimum wage income that will be sustainable the rest of their lives.”

Adults pay a monthly $600 tuition to learn about video game and app design and development, including 3D animation. Students learn a little of everything involved in video game design at first, then branch off to learn about a specific field once they determine what they like and do best. Students receive a certificate of completion after they finish their coursework. For example, O’Brien discovered her skill lies in coding games. She was the primary developer of the institute’s first iPad app, Soroban, a digital abacus you can download for 99 cents. “When my app was released, I was quite shocked,” O’Brien said. “Although I had experience programming, I didn’t have any knowledge of the game world, so it didn’t seem possible.”

From Skills to Jobs

nP does not just aim to build students’ skills so they are marketable for future employers. The nonprofit also hires students who show particular leadership and capability. Such employees receive ongoing assistance and accommodations to be successful nP employees, including flexible hours to account for the use of public transportation. O’Brien now teaches coding and works on games and apps as an nP employee. She thrives on building students’ skills and self-esteem. “I like teaching others on the spectrum,” she said. “They are ‘normal’ to me and we understand each other. I think the challenge is in getting them to believe what they can accomplish if they are willing to put forth the effort. For most, nP is the first time they’ve been accepted anywhere, and they have not been given the opportunity to be successful. Here their success is only dependent on their work, and that is unlimited.”

McNiece, who now teaches level design at nP, has seen a similar change in his students. New enrollees start off introverted, but by the end of taking courses with other students like them, he said, “they’re completely different people.” McNiece has also recently experienced some personal changes. He moved out of his family home into an apartment with a roommate so he could be closer to his nP job. The transition was rough, he said, but he’s been preparing to live independently “for pretty much as long as I can remember.”

About a dozen of the institute’s 75 students have chosen to live in apartments near nP, Moore said. Some of the families who live out of state or several hours away have privately hired caregivers to check on them. Moore and Selec plan for nP to have a larger facility with on-campus housing in the future as they develop and distribute more products. Right now they depend mostly on donations and tuition to keep nP running. Donations accounted for nearly 60 percent of their revenue for fiscal year 2010. But they hope to draw enough revenue from contracts for products and tuition as they expand to build multiple training centers around the country.  

The nonprofit has hired eight former students so far, Moore said. It plans to hire more students whose previous jobs have not challenged them or accommodated their needs. “We’re teaching white-collar skills in an intentionally flexible environment,” he said. The institute provides headphones to mitigate students’ sensory difficulties and a room where they can decompress and interact without pressure. Students come for lessons however many hours they can manage, depending on their transportation and other needs. Psychologists provide some pro bono counseling. And Selec runs a regular group meeting on teamwork and appropriate workplace conduct.

Professors from local universities also volunteer their time to offer some programming, Moore said. And the site collaborates with researchers who want to study the nP model. “We will be publishing white papers,” he said. “We are also talking with some large companies about doing some work for them.” The institute may one day have a for-profit division and employ former students who can work a traditional 40-hour week, Moore said. The program may even go beyond video game and app design. “We’re still young, but we fully intend to expand the curriculum to include a lot of other disciplines,” he said. “We may do 3D movies down the road. Astronomy. Art. Music. We may have our own restaurant or cafeteria someday and run a chef program.”

Until then, students are brainstorming more ideas for video games and apps, Moore said. PC, iPhone and iPad products are under development. And students continue to cultivate personal connections. “For autistics, the difficult part of working is in finding people who believe in you and give you a chance,” O’Brien said. “nP is a unique place where people on the spectrum are immediately accepted for who they are within a community of people who understand them. They find real friends they can work and socialize with. Their work proves they are very capable people, regardless of their challenges.”