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“A lot of our crew like it dark,” Gary Moore whispers as he walks into a dimmed computer lab in Plano, Texas. About a dozen adults, mostly young men, are at the terminals or writing on a large whiteboard. A team meeting begins, but not everyone participates. One man yawns audibly every few minutes; another stands and wanders away.
Unlike the Dan Marino Foundation, the nonPareil Institute, a nonprofit technology company, aims to become a for-profit employer. About 140 people with autism—dubbed ‘crew members’—study software development here, paying monthly fees to work through a set curriculum.
The staff and crew have published a few e-books and built eight mobile applications. (In one, a game called “Space Ape,” a Russian chimp rides a rocket while collecting bananas.) These products have generated almost no revenue so far, says Moore, the institute’s cofounder. Donor contributions and student fees support the organization’s $2.3 million budget. But Moore says he hopes the apps and other products will eventually make enough money to return revenue to the crew. Since the Plano campus opened in 2010, the institute has hired 7 or 8 crew members full-time, and about 30 part-time. Just one blockbuster app, Moore says, could allow the institute to hire all of its crew members. “The real goal,” Moore says, “is we build an app here that’s the next Candy Crush.”
In another room, two computer monitors are set back to back so their users face each other. A young man at one monitor is building a game environment. The other monitor replicates everything he does, so his instructor can observe without physically looking over his shoulder.
This low-pressure setup is one of the ways the institute tries to make people with autism more comfortable. Another is the digital platform that manages the curriculum, which assigns homework tasks as “quests” for students to complete at their own pace. There are no grades. “It’s nonjudgmental,” says cofounder and Chief Executive Officer Dan Selec, who designed the platform.
Back in the darkened computer lab, crew member Jacob Waters is digitally polishing an illustration for a children’s e-book about a pig with green spots. The pig is “kind of a misfit,” Waters says in a barely audible voice. He wrote and illustrated two other e-books that the institute published. When he saw his work released to the public, he says, “I admit it was a pretty big deal at first.”
Although many of the people studying here make significant progress in both software and social skills, Moore says, the tech industry is too fast-paced and competitive for most of his crew. “That industry is not a good fit for most adults with autism,” he says. “Let’s don’t force a square peg in a round hole; let’s create more square holes.”
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For adults with autism who are seeking jobs on their own, options are growing. A few companies specialize in hiring people with autism to test software. For New Jersey resident John Cha, who graduated from college in 2011 with a degree in math, it’s been a great fit. Cha, who has autism, had difficulties getting hired previously, but found work at ULTRA Testing, which primarily employs people with autism. “The work is immensely enjoyable, and seems to be tailored exactly to take advantage of my various mental quirks,” Cha says. For example, he says, he gets bored easily, but the job lets him work independently and switch tasks often. Other software-testing companies, including Specialisterne Denmark and Aspiritech, follow the same model, relying on employees on the spectrum.