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2:26 am
Mon April 22, 2013

Young Adults With Autism Can Thrive In High-Tech Jobs

Originally published on Tue April 23, 2013 2:07 pm

The job hunt is complicated enough for most high school and college graduates — and even tougher for the growing number of young people on the autism spectrum. Despite the obstacles that people with autism face trying to find work, there's a natural landing place: the tech industry.

Amelia Schabel graduated from high school five years ago. She had good grades and enrolled in community college. But it was too stressful. After less than a month she was back at home, doing nothing.

"I did go to a community college for a semester, but that definitely was not for me," she says.

Schabel has Asperger's syndrome, a disorder on the "high functioning" end of the autism spectrum.

According to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 88 children in the U.S. has an autism spectrum disorder. For people like Schabel, attending college and interacting socially can be tough.

"I can look someone in the eye and talk to them," she says, "but if someone treats me in a way I don't think I deserve to be treated, I'm not going to react well. I may lash out, I may not speak to them, I may just glare."

Although symptoms and their severity vary widely, the majority of young adults with autism spectrum disorder won't make it to college and won't get a job after they graduate. This year alone, 50,000 adolescents with autism will turn 18.

A Tech Mecca For Young Adults With Autism

Gary Moore wants to make the transition into the workforce easier for young adults on the autism spectrum. Moore, along with his partner Dan Selic, founded the nonPareil Institute in Plano, Texas. It's a combination training program and software company for young adults on the autism spectrum.

Schabel, now 23, is one of more than 100 students at nonPareil, training in everything from software programing and digital design to 3-D modeling. She's studying visual art and working on a children's book. Two-dozen young adults with autism work as employees there.

Moore's son, Andrew, is a junior in high school and on the autism spectrum. Moore says he used to stay up at night worrying about what would happen to Andrew after graduation.

"Although [Andrew] can't tie his shoes or buckle his belt to do a lot of things independently, he can do technology," Moore says. "He's a digital native."

For people like Andrew Moore and Amelia Schabel, high-tech jobs can be a perfect fit. Dr. Patricia Evans, a neurologist at Children's Medical Center in Dallas, says people on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum often have an amazing ability to hyper-focus on a task.

"They may really flourish at engineering-type tasks or computer design, where their interaction with people is somewhat limited," Evans says.

White-Collar Careers

One Fortune 500 company that has begun hiring people with intellectual disabilities in North Texas is Alliance Data. Jim Pierce, vice president of Corporate Administration, says "this is an untapped labor market." He has hired a dozen people with intellectual disabilities.

"We've got this one guy, for example; his productivity is three times as productive as the person doing his job who did not have cognitive disabilities before him. And his error rate is 2 percent. He is 98 percent accurate. He's a phenomenal worker," Pierce says.

Pierce thinks it won't be long before more companies realize they're missing out on a hiring opportunity. In the meantime, nonPareil is trying to keep up with growing demand for training and jobs in Texas. It's looking to build more campuses in Fort Worth, and eventually in Silicon Valley, Calif.

Copyright 2013 KERA Unlimited. To see more, visit http://www.kera.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On a Monday, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

In Your Health today, we'll look at fraudulent insurance schemes that are popping up all over the country as the health system undergoes major changes, but first, young adults in the autism spectrum and the obstacles they in the job market.

Lauren Silverman, from member station KERA in Dallas looked at one place where they are finding work - in the high tech.

LAUREN SILVERMAN, BYLINE: Amelia Schabel graduated from high school five years ago. She had good grades and enrolled in community college. But it was too stressful. After less than a month she was back at home, doing...

AMELIA SCHABEL: Nothing, absolutely nothing.

SILVERMAN: Schabel has Asperger syndrome, a disorder on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum. For people like her, interacting socially can be a challenge.

SCHABEL: I can look someone in the eye and talk to them, but I don't always understand the work and I don't know who to ask for help. Or if someone, you know, doesn't treat me in a way I don't think I deserve to be treated, I'm not going to react well. I may lash out. I may not speak to them. I may just glare.

SILVERMAN: This year alone, 50,000 adolescents with autism will turn 18.

GARY MOORE: It is staggering to think about the number of children that will be aging out of the school system in the next 15 years, with autism that really aren't going to have a place to go.

SILVERMAN: That's Gary Moore. His son Andrew is a junior in high school and has autism. Moore used to stay up at night worrying about what would happen to Andrew after graduation.

MOORE: Although he can't tie his shoes or buckle his belt to do a lot of things independently, he can do technology. And so, I've been watching my son his whole life playing on the computer, play videogames and I saw all this ability.

SILVERMAN: So Moore decided to pair up with another parent of an autistic teen to create what they see as the future for kids like theirs. It's a training program and a software company called the nonPareil Institute in Plano, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CONVERSATION)

SILVERMAN: More than a hundred young adults in the autism spectrum are students here. They get training in software programming, digital design and 3D modeling. Two dozen work as employees. Aaron Winston, who's 21, has been at nonPareil two years.

AARON WINSTON: I knew I wanted to be in the video game industry but they said, oh, you have to go to college.

SILVERMAN: And he tried, but says it was overwhelming, navigating the large campus, crowded classes and new social situations.

WINSTON: I don't think I would be very successful at college but nonPareil allows me to be successful here.

SILVERMAN: Last year, Winston designed and programmed a game called "Space Ape." It's available on iTunes.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEOGAME, "SPACE APE")

SILVERMAN: In it, you help a little Russian cosmonaut lost in space. NonPareil already has other apps in the iTunes store and on Google Play, and seven more in the works.

JIM PIERCE: I really do feel like this is an untapped labor market.

SILVERMAN: Jim Pierce is with Alliance Data, a Fortune 500 company in Plano that's hired nearly a dozen people with cognitive disabilities.

PIERCE: We've got this one guy. His productivity level is three times as productive as the person doing his job that did not have cognitive disabilities before him. And his error rate is 2 percent. He's 98 percent accurate. He's a phenomenal worker.

SILVERMAN: Pierce thinks it won't be long before more companies realize they're missing out on a hiring opportunity. Dr. Patricia Evans, of Children's Medical Center in Dallas, says jobs in the tech sector can be a perfect fit for people with autism because of their ability to hyper focus on an assignment.

DR. PATRICIA EVANS: They may really flourish at engineering-type task or computer design-type task where their interaction with people is somewhat limited.

SILVERMAN: Ultimately, Dr. Evans says whether someone ends up doing data analysis for a Fortune 500 company or programming video games at a start-up like nonPareil isn't what matters. What's important is making it easier for young adults with autism to transition out of school and into the working world.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Silverman Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.