Imagine you had been told all your life that you’re “not normal,” and the expectations from most people is you could get a job stacking shelves or something similar. Now imagine you have the chance to express your creativity in a safe, sympathetic environment.
This is how Lake Oswego dad, David Brebner, explains his introduction to the nonPareil Institute (nP), a nonprofit technology company providing technical training, employment and housing to individuals who have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.
“Of our three sons, one is on the spectrum and one is profoundly dyslexic,” Brebner explains. “We have never seen these conditions as disabilities, we have tended to think of them more as alternative ways of viewing the world.” However, the public education system isn’t necessarily set up to support this way of thinking, Brebner adds. Standardized testing and the new Common Core can restrict students from showing their true potential by measuring performance against arbitrary scores. “The nP Institute is a natural progression of that thinking—it is a shining example of creating an environment that helps people thrive,” Brebner says. “Of course we jumped at the chance of being involved as soon as we could.”
Based in Plano, Texas, close to 40 cities throughout the United States have submitted requests to launch an nP (which means “no equal”) sattelite campus. And if a group of dedicated parents and professionals, such as Brebner, get their way, Portland could be next.
Currently, Portland is one of three candidate cities for expansion, along with Fort Worth and Houston, Texas. Founder Dan Selec drew from the personal experiences of his son’s autism, watching him lose language at 18 months old and remain non-verbal for many years. Through intense observation of his son, Selec realized that that undoubtedly, life was going to look different.
“I began to wonder what this ‘different’ would be,” he explains. “By observing how my son would solve problems, I saw some inherent technical strengths in the way he reasoned, how he worked with the world. Weakness, Check. Strengths, Check. I wondered what existed that would allow my son to live a fulfilled, safe existence.”
Upon meeting like-minded parents of children with autism—and seeing the common thread of the teens’ interests in computers and video games—the small group began to address the question: “What happens to our kids when they grow up?”
Studies show that nearly 90 percent of adults on the autism spectrum are unemployed or underemployed, and 70 percent will be unable to live independently. If children, like Selec’s son, could help harness the passion for gaming and computers in a marketable ability, “an entirely new method of communications, expression and productivity would be made possible,” Selec says.
Together with co-founder Gary Moore, Selec welcomed nine students in his kitchen for five nights a week beginning in 2009. Today, nP Institute is a thriving nonprofit with 150 students, or “Crewmembers,” and 600 on a waitlist.
Additionally, there is a full-time staff of 17 and 31 part-time student hires who serve as instructors. The organization operates out of Southern Methodist University in Plano.
Selec wrote the software that manages the operations of the company, as well as the curriculum, training and production teams. The organization is well-positioned to begin rolling out what they do with the limited resources on hand, he says.
“There are thousands who are in need of what we do, so we are pushing as hard as we can,” Selec says.
As of October of last year, the Institute had created five apps in the iTunes® store, four in the Android® store, as well as dozens of free-to-play maps and campaigns for various games. The Institute has garnered national media attention and countless mentions online.
The goal is to teach tools and instruct students on how to build something marketable to sustain a lifetime of financial sustainability, Selec explains.
“Many are saying that getting them [teens and adults] employment, any employment, is the solution,” Selec says. “It’s not. I have seen stakeholders place our people in part-time, low paying positions that would never begin to cover a lifetime of living wages, and call that success.”
These positions don’t draw on the individual’s power, abilities or desires, he says.
“To me, that’s a loss of brain power,” Selec continues. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Over Spring Break in March, the roadmap for opening nP Portland began with a 2-day game programming camp at George Fox University in Newberg. The camp was hosted by GFU marketing professor Justine Haigh, the mother of a child with autism. Thanks to the GFU technology staff and the campus’ capabilities, 12 students on the spectrum gathered for a tutorial on the nP software and how it’s used to build games and apps. Selec also traveled from Texas with two Crewmembers to assist with the workshop.
“It was a huge success,” Haigh says. “Everyone was highly engaged with the material and the students left feeling accepted, confident and with a new sense of purpose.”
Selec agrees and says, “We were very moved by our reception from the families and tech folks in Portland, and the staff at George Fox. My respect for the university and the Portland community is boundless.”
Students and parents felt equally excited and hopeful for the future after the camp.
“I am pleasantly surprised such a program exists that gives the autistic community such a big opportunity,” says Liam Nelson, a 16-year-old Beaverton High School student who participated in the camp. “I really got a lot out of the camp and I couldn’t be more excited for it to come to Portland permanently.”
Initial funds will allow a community event and the opportunity to meet Selec and Moore, as well as the nonPareil Portland team, hear student success stories from both Texas Crewmembers and those who recently attended the Portland game programming camp.
A stretch goal of $160,000 has been set and a strategic partnership has been developed with GFU who will act as the hosting entity for nP Portland. Campus-wide relationships have also begun to take shape in hopes to integrate with the university, including: College of Business, College of Engineering (CENG), Graduate Department of Clinical Psychology, and the College of Education.
Requirements for enrollment will include being 18 years or older and having an official diagnosis on the autism Spectrum. No prior related experience or education is required for students to become a Crewmember.
“My vision for the new paradigm, is to bring these adults on the spectrum together, give them the environment and training they need, in an area in which they have an interest, and give them the ability to build and market product that could help them earn revenue for their lifetimes,” Selec explains. “This would be based on their work.”
The plan is to grow slowly to accommodate the needs of the students, with an initial lab/space on the GFU campus, Haigh explains. It is expected that the program will start with a cohort of 12 Crewmembers and grow to 84 by the end of the second year.
“The existing ‘go to school, graduate and go to work’ would not work for my child,” Selec says. “Employment as an end goal, was an answer to the wrong question. How do I support him for his entire life was the right question.”