People with autism experience challenges that might not be obvious. Imagine you’re an adult with autism. You can drive to a college campus. But upon arriving, a full parking lot stirs anxiety, fear, mistrust and a lost feeling – causing you to go home.
“This happens,” said Anne Marie Blacketer, CFRE and chief development officer at nonPareil’s Houston campus in Westchase District. That’s why nonPareil wants to make learning more accessible than before for adults with autism. “We expanded programs, creating a learning environment that meets the education and support needs of our 85 Houston students,” said Blacketer.
The ubiquity of the digital world has created growing space for the classrooms that nonPareil can provide. “App development and internet deployment have given nonPareil and the autism community expanded opportunities for our students,” Blacketer. “Our students are learning the skills needed in the workforce today, on the same platforms employers are seeking.”
Tech boom and skills to meet it
nonPareil provides students with autism the post-secondary education in technical and digital arts needed to become valuable employees to companies like Phillips 66, BMC Software and others. “We work to develop not only technical skills, we develop real workplace skills including teamwork, giving and receiving feedback and more. For the adult with autism, these are life changing skills leading to employment and independence – and community,” stated Blacketer, who joined the organization in 2019.
Facing high unemployment amongst adults with autism – nonPareil has decided to defy expectations. By tapping the high level of skill and talent that adult students with autism demonstrate to bring a game to market, nonPareil is in a workforce development role. As it finds career opportunities for students, it prepares employers for success in filling their Diversity and Inclusion goals with included adults with disabilities.
A shift to autism awareness around the nation
More companies have launched initiatives to hire adults with autism, providing meaningful work where students use their skill and passion in a real-world job. A major partnership is in the works with a well-known global commercial real estate firm where students will have internship opportunities in building and landscape design.
Six years ago, nonPareil opened its Westchase District campus where it functioned like a studio working to create games that would be deployed and sold over various platforms.
“Today, most games are not really created and sold, the industry moved faster than what our studios were able to do,” said Blacketer. “We changed and adapted. After this realization, we understood that our focus had to be teaching our students how to become employed in the fields they loved.” According to Statista, online gaming alone employed 189,000 people in 2015 and the number is now at 241,000.
Beyond gaming, campus expands
Gaming and app development are not the only areas where the institute’s students thrive. They do well with graphic design, architectural design, landscape design, IT Help Desk and virtual reality. To keep pace, the institute transformed its curriculum to be structured more like a vocational school.
A renewed focus incorporated education in technical and digital arts combined with soft skills and core skills classes that teach interpersonal interactions. “We work toward proof of concept,” said Blacketer. “When our students are ready to go to work, they have a proven portfolio. We are actively building a network of support for engagement partners.” This network includes volunteers, mentors, and professionals who can review students’ portfolios and resumes.
Blacketer added: “We even teach how to give and receive feedback – who couldn’t benefit from that?” The Houston campus at 10675 Richmond Avenue tripled its space since opening. It provides classrooms in person and online. Many instructors are former students. Everything is hands-on learning. Students learn together.
nonPareil’s students have published more than 14 games and apps which are available on the iTunes store, the Android store, Steam, as well as several books and comics on Amazon and iBooks.
Developing future partnerships
nonPareil is also on the verge of establishing a supported employment option with many leading companies. It is the next big step, said Blacketer. “Preparing students to take on careers, and preparing employers for hiring them, is our primary goal. We are actively seeking employment partners to continue these opportunities,” said Blacketer. For nonPareil, awareness is great, but acceptance is better.