How Three Post-Secondary Programs Are Setting Autistic Individuals on a Path to Success

UPDATED: April 2, 2024
PUBLISHED: March 23, 2023
College of Adaptive Arts, a post-secondary program for students with autism

When Gary Moore’s son, Andrew, turned 11 in 2007, Moore worried about his future. Moore’s concerns weren’t typical. While many parents were thinking about grades, extracurricular activities and adolescence, Moore was concerned about what would happen once his son transitioned to adulthood. His friend Dan Selec understood these woes.

Moore and Selec were fathers to young boys diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, a developmental disability that affects people in varying degrees. At the time, one in 110 children were diagnosed with autism. Those children are now adults.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, children with disabilities under 3 may receive early intervention services. Infants and toddlers with differing abilities work with a team of therapists and instructors on their individualized needs. Their schedules overflow with appointments. Their days are filled with occupational and physical therapies and speech and language instruction.

From ages 3 to 21, children can receive special education services through their local public schools. An Individualized Education Program is crafted for qualifying individuals to help them receive an education, despite their abilities. Outside of school, children continue to receive therapies including vocational therapies, depending on their resources.

Post-secondary programs for students with autism

But once they reach the age of 21, they “fall off the services cliff,” a term used to describe the transition to adulthood that includes aging out of special education programs.

That new reality can be isolating. There are no longer any classes to go to. There is no longer a team of teachers, therapists and professionals helping them navigate their disability. They are on their own.

Moore and Selec’s sons would soon face this reality.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 5,437,988 adults are living with autism in the U.S as of 2017.

Each year, an estimated 70,700 to 111,600 teens will enter adulthood, according to Drexel University Life Course Outcomes Research Program. Once they hit 21, they will continue the trek into adulthood with limited services. Moore and Selec couldn’t fathom this.

“We wanted to try to create a future for our sons because we didn’t want them to feel like they didn’t have a future and that they were just going to be relegated to spending the rest of their lives in their bedroom,” Moore says.

So, the duo founded nonPareil Institute, a post-secondary training institute, in 2008. They are one of a number of nonprofits working to empower individuals with autism to thrive.

Here’s a look at how three post-secondary programs for students and adults with autism are making a difference.

1. nonPareil Institute

For two hours a night, five nights a week, Selec taught digital technology, video game and app design to nine autistic adults under the glow of his kitchen lights. The instruction time was intimate. He taught one to two adults a night, but they weren’t students. Selec and Moore considered them crew members. They were all a team working together to create a pathway to employment for autistic adults in their community.

While Selec taught, Moore established nonPareil’s nonprofit status, sought donations and searched for a building to house the concept.

By the end of the first year, they knew their post-secondary program for students and adults with autism would be revolutionary. The initial nine students, or crew members, had prospered. It was the proof of concept that would set the foundation for a program.

“Knowing that demand was out there—and that there was very little out there for adults on the spectrum, just almost nothing—we felt this is something that the students gravitated to,” Moore says. “They loved this technology, and they were excited. We saw their self-esteem and self-confidence go up in that short amount of time.”

Since then, the program has served over 850 crew members with three locations in Texas and one in Florida. These students can choose between courses that teach both core soft skills, such as “communications” or “community and culture,” and hard technical skills. Crew members follow their choice of tracks including “digital technology training,” “work-readiness training,” “community/social engagement” and “IT support.”

Crew members have gone on to publish books (one, Tanner Hall, wrote and illustrated two graphic novels, Experiment: Volume 1 and Experiment: Volume 2), create applications available in Apple’s App Store and achieve many more accomplishments.

“In early years, when students would finish nonPareil, they were still having difficulty finding a job…. Many times, companies just really don’t know how to onboard and manage an adult on the spectrum,” Moore says.

Despite their expertise in technology, employment options were limited. Many crew members found work at grocery stores and restaurants. They yearned for more and they knew they had the skill set to accomplish more.

nonPareil Institute responded by establishing PowerSourcing, tech outsourcing “Powered by Autism™.” Through PowerSourcing, businesses are able to outsource their application development, 2D and 3D graphics, help desk staffing and more. Crew members fulfill these needs from nonPareil Institute’s accommodating environment while gaining job and project management skills, working with others, meeting deadlines, earning a check and strengthening their resume and portfolio.

2. Els for Autism

Like nonPareil Institute, the Els for Autism Foundation was a labor of love that stemmed from a familial relationship. In 2008, World Golf Hall of Famer Ernie Els and his wife Liezl Els went public with their son Ben’s autism diagnosis. They formed the foundation the following year and opened the Els Center of Excellence in 2015 in Jupiter, Florida. Els for Autism is now global with entities in Canada, South Africa and the U.K.

Through evidence-based practices, Els for Autism aims to “transform the lives of people with autism and those who care for them through lifetime services and collaborative partnerships,” according to their website. The organization has six focus areas: “adult services, education, global outreach, recreation, therapy services and research.”

Els for Autism program director Erin Brooker Lozott, Ed.D., BCBA-D, CCC-SLP, says the path to inclusivity begins with understanding.

“People with autism are the smartest people I’ve ever met,” Brooker Lozott says. “It’s hard to see something you don’t understand. When you can learn about autism and understand the value of a person who has autism, and learn how to maximize their strengths and support their areas of weakness, your company is unstoppable.”

The foundation’s adult services use research-based methodologies that provide an individual with the tools to create a fulfilling life.

Adults who have graduated high school can explore pathways to paid employment “in the local municipality, healthcare or hospitality industries” through a 10-week Els for Autism Work Experience Program, a post-secondary program for students and adults with autism that provides four cohorts a year with hands-on work experience.

Under the adult services umbrella, the foundation programming includes Els for Autism Adult Day Training Program, The Spoken Wheel Society social group, online Adults Connections Club, a mental health support group and recreation programs in “golf, tennis, yoga, theater, music, chorus and art.” Autistic adults are able to strengthen their skills and explore their individuality through these programs.

“If you met one individual with autism, you met just that one individual with autism,” says Kerry Magro, a national speaker and bestselling author of four autism-centered books. He speaks from experience.

Magro was diagnosed with a form of autism—Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified—at 4 years old. His achievements include earning his doctorate in educational technology leadership in 2019, being a two-time TEDx Talks speaker, being the CEO and founder of nonprofit KFM Making a Difference and publishing four books, including his 2022 release Autistics on Autism: Stories You Need to Hear About What Helped Them While Growing Up and Pursuing Their Dreams.

Magro is one of two Els for Autism 2022 Autism Spectrum Award winners. The organization recognized him for his advocacy and the work he does through his own nonprofit, KFM Making a Difference.

Through KFM, Magro has created pathways to higher education for autistic adults through scholarships. KFM Making a Difference has awarded 130 college scholarships to adults diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder across the nation since 2012.

Magro serves on the Els for Autism advisory board. The board is composed of autistic adults who ensure the foundation has input and direction from the community they serve.

“Your perception is your reality,” Brooker Lozott says. “If we don’t have both sides of this story, then how I perceive something and how a person with autism perceives something may be completely different. I always, always ask a person with autism how they perceive it before I would just consider it correct.”

Els for Autism and Magro has also offered resources to employers who aim to tap into an underutilized talent pool. In 2021, Els for Autism hosted the Autism Innovations & Global Impact Conference: “Building a Neurodiverse Workforce.”

“By thinking of people with autism through a strengths-based lens, and breaking down the barriers and giving opportunities to work, that is the essence of success,” Brooker Lozott says. “That’s where we know that we have created a world that supports inclusivity of all people.”

3. College of Adaptive Arts

In Saratoga, California, College of Adaptive Arts (CAA) “provides an equitable collegiate experience to adults with special needs who historically have not had access to college education,” according to their website. The college was founded by Pamela Lindsay, Ed.D., and DeAnna Pursai, and is housed at Swenson Flagship Campus at West Valley College.

“The way that our students learn doesn’t really fit the dot edu system,” says Lindsay, who has a doctorate in educational leadership/curriculum and instruction. “There are programs on college campuses, but they’re finite; they have age limits and year limits of when people can participate.”

CAA, which began as a musical theatre class in 2009, offers one-hour classes in 10 schools of study: “visual arts,” “business,” “communications,” “dance,” “digital media studies,” “health and wellness,” “library arts,” “music,” “science and technology” and “theatre.” The expansion has flourished through the requests and desires of their students.

Students have the autonomy to choose from 75 courses with a defined curriculum. The post-secondary program for students and adults with autism is not an adult day home. Students are there to learn but are not subjected to a rigid testing environment. They have the ability to explore the arts discipline and find where their passions lie. The opportunity to do so is transformational.

CAA integrates their students into the community through performances. Often, the community recognizes CAA students by their confidence and assurance. The feedback is heartwarming.

“It’s amazing and transformative to see how what we’re doing is really starting to spread out,” Pursai says. “One of the best comments I heard from an observer, when we were performing in the community, she came up to me and said, ‘I feel more alive when I watch your students perform.’”

Since the pandemic, CAA has integrated a virtual learning option. This has opened the doors for expansion across the nation.

“Colleges that are providing services to adults in their community and aren’t serving the adults that we serve or don’t see a way to do that, we can come right onto their campus next week, and we can start teaching classes or we can provide online classes for students that they have to turn away,” Lindsay says.

CAA, too, was a response to personal experiences. Pursai’s sister Angel was diagnosed with Down syndrome at birth. Lindsay’s daughter Valerie is autistic. CAA knows that with safe and engaging environments, adults with differing abilities can capitalize on their talents and community contributions. They’ve witnessed it time and time again.

“Be open and willing to learn about people on the spectrum and accept them and know that they can be a benefit,” Moore says. “They’re here for a reason, my son was put on earth for a reason, and I just hope more and more people will be open and willing to open their arms with opportunities for employment and support for these young men and women because they’ve got so much to offer.”

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photo courtesy of College of Adaptive Arts.

Gutierrez is a writer who can never escape words. If she’s not writing, she’s reading.