Institute's Mobile Apps Are Built By Hands of Those with Autism

The connection between adults with autism and computer programming has become the basis of a unique nonprofit technology company in Texas.

The connection between adults with autism and computer programming has become the basis of a unique nonprofit technology company in Texas.

Instructor Kyle works with student Taylor at the NonPareil Institute, which helps adults with autism learn skills in application development.

Called the nonPareil Institute (for "no equal"), the company builds apps for iPhone and Android phones and PCs. The 11 staffers provide 80 students who are on the autism spectrum , which includes Asperger's Syndrome, technical training and help adjusting to a work environment.

The students, ranging in age from their early 20s to mid-50s, and staff have already launched NPISarobon, an abacus-like app for 99 cents available on the App Store for iPad . Two new apps, Card Tracker and Number Tap, are about to be launched in the App Store. NPISarbon was conceived and coded by Cheryl O'Brien, a student at the institute who is now a staff programmer.

"We also have a social app coming, and it's going to be revolutionary," CEO Dan Selec said in an interview, while declining to offer any details. "Everybody thinks if you have an app in the App Store, you're a millionaire. I wish it worked that way. So far our sales have been insignificant."

But Selec, who has a 14-year-old son with Asperger's, has a 100-year vision for nonPareil and said mobile app revenues will eventually sustain the institute's operating budget, which is expected to be $1.2 million for 2012. "It just takes one app that gets everybody excited," he said. "Time will tell."

Selec co-founded the institute in his kitchen more than two years ago with two other fathers of sons with autism, a developmental disability that can cause problems with social interaction and communication. Asperger's is a milder form of the condition.

One of those dads, Gary Moore, is president of the institute and likes to point out that building a successful app takes persistence. "Rovio built 50 games before coming up with Angry Birds," he said. The third dad and co-founder is John Eix, who works in business development for a Dallas law firm.

Situated in classrooms at Southern Methodist University in Plano, Texas, the institute plans to build a $20 million campus nearby that will include housing for the most severely autistic students, and then expand to branch campuses around the U.S., Selec said.

Kyle McNiece, 23, originally a student at the institute, is now a teacher there, similar to a graduate instructor. He teaches apps coding using tools such as Hammer and Unity and, soon, the Unreal Development Kit.

"What I do really well is design, although the coding part of it is hard," he said in an interview. A self-described person with Asperger's, he said his main difficulty is misconstruing what people mean when they say things, such as when they tell a joke or are being sarcastic.

"It really has been an adjustment in a good way here," he said. "Back home, people didn't understand what it was to work with an autistic, but it's easy to get along with people here and what they say. It's actually been a huge, drastic change."

Asked how happy he is at nonPareil on a scale of 1 to 10, he answered: "I'd say it's an 11."

McNiece came to nonPareil when he was still deciding whether to look for a job or go to school. He didn't expect to become an instructor but said he likes the job and is working on fully adjusting. "If I could change anything, it would be that I really want to not be as stressed out and frustrated when problems arise, like when students come to me all at once with questions," he said.

NonPareil is a good fit, McNiece said. "My five-year goal is to get that one product out that makes our name recognizable, so other [developer] companies say, 'Hey, those people made something fantastic and we want those people to work here.' "

Moore said three nonPareil students have finished a variety of design and coding classes and have gone on to programming and design jobs.

Students each year get certificates for finishing various classes, but the institute is not accredited as a school, since it is technically a nonprofit business, Selec said. A student pays $600 a month to take classes, but the money is donated to the institute to help keep it running. Apps are not patented or copyrighted, and profits from apps will go back to the institute.

Selec is dedicated to building housing in the next phase partly because so many people with autism can't handle a long commute, even though they might do well in a design or programming class. About 70% of the students don't drive, and some still must commute three hours each way to attend.

"Not all our students are computer savants, and some have social challenges or difficulties with lighting or communications," he said. "Some have been here a year and still have trouble finding the bathroom. Even so, you can achieve great things."

Similar to his co-founders, Selec said he started nonPareil by "looking at my son, who wasn't playing football but was on the computer. I realized he was pretty good for this stuff."

Moore added that many people with Asperger's "have an uncanny ability to connect with technology."

The co-founders also realized that they didn't know what would happen to their kids when they became adults, a problem facing hundreds of thousands of families with autistic children around the globe.

"We literally have received emails from all over the world asking about the work we're doing," Eix said. The waiting list at the institute is now about 80 names, and is expected to mushroom.

Selec said he knows of other nonprofit organizations training adults with autism to become software testers, such as AspiraTech in Chicago and another institute in Denmark. Offering training in actual programming and design as NonPareil does is rare, if not unique, Selec said. Building a campus with housing would be unique.

Selec said the NonPareil concept might not have been possible without the invention of the App Store and subsequent others like the Android Market. "We owe those markets a debit of gratitude without a doubt," Selec said. "They provide built-in marketing. If I've written the greatest app ever and can't get it into the hands of the public, what have I done?"

With mobile markets growing, Selec said he feels more secure about nonPareil's prospects for selling apps. "The mobile market is still in its infancy and will change over time. We want to have our data with us wherever we go and be free to use it where we are. I believe that the apps market is just going to get stronger, although it never kills the PC and desktop. Just look at how the female population is untapped with games, although Zynga has tapped into that."

While some of nonPareil's apps will be games, the focus is much broader, reflecting the values of the institute, which maintains that its students have special abilities, not disabilities.

"We're finding ideas for apps to make life easier," Selec said. "We're building a math educational app as well. We're looking for a way for people to learn math in a more natural and easy way."

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His email address is .

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This story, "Institute's Mobile Apps Are Built By Hands of Those with Autism" was originally published by Computerworld.


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