Dan Selec will never forget the day he walked into an elementary school cafeteria in Plano, Texas, to pick up his 10-year-old, Caleb. The room was filled with kids laughing, shouting and horsing around, but Caleb was nowhere in sight. Dan scanned the rows of empty tables until he finally spotted his son, sitting forlornly in a far corner, watching his classmates. "Seeing Caleb there all alone made my heart break," Dan says. "I knew that if I didn't do something, I was staring at his future."
Caleb, now 16, is autistic. Soon he'll finish high school and face the challenges of adult life. The prospect is terrifying not just for Dan and his wife, Ginny, but for every parent of the approximately 500,000 autistic children in the U.S. who turn 18 each year. While the disorder includes a wide range of symptoms and behaviors, even those who are mildly impaired and have high IQs often have difficulty handling the everyday social interactions and demands of work or college. According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics, in the six years after high school only 55% of young adults with autism held a job and only 35% attended a two- or four-year institution. "After that incident in the cafeteria, I realized that merely getting him through the days was not enough," Dan says. "I wanted him to have a sense of purpose and passion, and I had to figure out a way to make that possible."
The lightbulb moment came a few months later, when Dan was reading in his living room while Caleb played Nintendo. "He kept running to his bedroom and back, and after a certain point I realized he was Googling how to get to the next level in the game, using technology to communicate and solve a problem," he says. Dan, a software engineer, decided he could start teaching kids like Caleb how to design apps for mobile devices and gaming consoles, and eventually launch a tech company to employ them. "It would be a way for young adults with autism to develop their talents, apply them to meaningful work and sustain themselves for a lifetime," he says.
Dan could handle the technical aspects, but he knew this wasn't a one-person project. Someone else had to focus on meeting with families, networking and fundraising. Through a mutual business contact, he met Gary Moore, a staffing expert for a local tech firm. Gary didn't just have the skills Dan was seeking—he also had an autistic son, Andrew, now 18. They founded nonPareil Institute in 2008. Dan chose the name because it means "a person or thing with no equal or match." He began offering free training sessions to young autistic adults after work and on weekends at his kitchen table while Gary recruited students and donors. Nearly two years later, the nonprofit received its first sizable gift—$200,000 from an anonymous source, enough for Gary and Dan to quit their jobs and draw a modest salary.
These days nonPareil is thriving. It has 135 students, with tuition and fees covering the rent for a 4,000-square-foot suite on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Plano. Though Dan and a small staff of tech pros pitch in as needed, former pupils, like 22-year-old Aaron Winston, teach most of the classes. It was love at first sight when he toured the institute four years ago with his parents, Cindy and David. "Aaron's bright and always got good grades, but he had so much social anxiety," Cindy says. "At nonPareil, he didn't have any of his typical hesitation. He felt comfortable because everyone was like him." Aaron learned computer design and coding, and in addition to teaching, he's a full-time staff programmer. "He's grown so much," says Cindy. "It's not a stretch to say nonPareil saved his life." Twenty-eight other former students have become full- or part-time paid instructors. "This is their company," Dan says. "They write all of the software products we are selling, which now include five apps and three e-books. They're nothing less than professionals building a brand."
Dan and Gary plan to expand to other cities, possibly Fort Worth or Houston, and eventually out of state, and to extend training and jobs into the culinary arts, engineering and automotive repair. Dan's ultimate goal is for nonPareil to have its own campuses. "I'm seeking not just job security for my son, but a place where he will be safe and looked after," he says. Caleb, who's currently homeschooled, recently took a nonPareil class in making online videos. Now Dan is waiting until Caleb is 18 and he can officially enroll. "He didn't have a voice or the power to influence his own life," Dan says. "But technology, which he understands and loves, is giving him that voice, a connection to others, and a happy place in the world."
Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Family Circle magazine.