July 12th, 2013
07:47 PM ET

Creating a school for autistic adults, one student at a time

Editors Note: Dan Selec is the founder and CEO of the nonPareil Institute, a hybrid software company and school located in Plano, Texas that teaches adults on the autism spectrum to write and develop apps, video games and iBooks. Watch his full profile this Saturday at 2:30p ET on “The Next List.”

By Dan Selec, Special to CNN

"You’re doing what?" asked my wife, ”Starting a new company," I said. “Not in my den you’re not,” she replied as she took in the PCs, monitors and chairs that now filled the room. “But you can have the kitchen.”

And so it began. I started the nonPareil Institute to provide technical training to adults on the autism spectrum. The idea was to mentor them to work in teams, and teach them to produce products that we could take to market. The ultimate goal is to build living campuses where my son, and others like him who are on the autism spectrum, can live fulfilling lives doing what they love.

The core issue I noticed was that there were many programs for spectrum kids, but there weren’t a lot of choices for adults after high school. That when they should begin the most productive times of their lives, but instead the group is plagued by very low employment rates, depression and isolation. After looking at the statistics, I knew it was time to get off the bench and make some new life choices.

We formed the foundations of how to accomplish the organization's goals during those early months in our home. The next year and a half was a blur of holding down a very busy full-time job, and training two students each night for two hours, five nights a week. It was the most exhausting period of my life. My eternal thanks goes to a spouse who tolerated so much activity in and out of our home for so long. As she now says, “It was just our new norm.”

Once the nonPareil Institute moved to a new full-time facility, we talked about how much we would miss the day-to-day routine in our home. It’s funny, I think everyone really missed the kitchen and the nightly bustle of our regular home life. We were one big happy family.

This is a core element I wanted to bring to the campus, where we now have 125 people, called crew members  learning and working. Forget technology. It is important to put the human element first, especially with a group of young people who are struggling to find their way in life, much less while also dealing with autism spectrum issues.

I spent much time mentoring, consoling and sometimes even praying with this early group, as they did their best to cope with the world they faced each day. The first nine crew members proved it was a good idea because they were learning and their lives were better as a result of the time we spent together.

Any parent who has a child with a disability walks around with the same question in their mind: "What happens to my child when I'm gone?"

At nonPareil Institute, we focus on three areas that will answer that question: Train, work and live. We provide technology training to adults on the autism spectrum. We mentor them into becoming functioning members of our working product teams. They build products and release them to the market (we have six apps in the App Store now). With parental, donor and product support, our crew members can live on campuses that are built to meet their needs for a lifetime.

Seeing how most of our crew does not drive, the campus environment solves the transportation issues we struggle with today. Building a community around my child that knows who he is, and lets him work on projects he loves, will allow my child to live a safe, productive and fulfilling life.

It turns out, there are quite a few other families who feel the same way. Simply responding to the massive influx of “requests for information” is an overwhelming and full-time job for several people.

At nonPareil, there is not a lot of theory. What is practical, what moves us forward, and what works are all that counts. We are, at our very core, a working software company. Yes, we do provide training in tools and technology, but the bigger part is helping individuals become functioning members of professional software teams.

For our donors, this is the most compelling kind of gift to give; a gift that, over time, allows an individual on the autism spectrum to no longer need outside support. We provide community and satisfaction for our crew, now at 125 strong. They are seeing real results for their efforts, which will allow them to contribute to their own success.

Ultimately, nonPareil is more a mission of love than technology, and it has to be a solution for the lifetime of our children. This is the one central objective that all of us as parents remain focused on: providing a lifetime answer for our kids.

Next time you bust out your mobile phone, head to the store and search for “npi” to buy an app from nonPareil Institute. Our crew will thank you.


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