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February 2, 2015 / 13 Shevat, 5775
 
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A Life with Autism


Today Dr. Shore leads a relatively “typical” life, splitting his time between Adelphi University in Long Island and his home in Newton, Massachusetts. He is married, teaches Special Education, lectures widely and is an author of several popular books on autism.

But what about today’s young adults who are still learning how to live their lives with autism? Aaron Winston lives in Dallas, Texas, where he attended the local day school and yeshiva high school, and was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of 16.

Now 21, Aaron is the head student programmer at the nonPareil Institute, a non-profit, non-sectarian technical training program for high functioning young adults with autism located in the Dallas suburb of Plano, Texas. It was founded two years ago by people with successful prior experience in computers who recognized that the field might offer career opportunities for their children with autism. Aaron is one of the leaders of the more than 90 nonPareil students working together to develop cellphone apps and video games for the commercial market.

After Aaron graduated from the Texas Torah Institute, he did not know what he wanted to do next. He says that he wasn’t “very social in high school, and didn’t really understand why people want friends.” His parents encouraged him to enroll in the local community college, but his first visit to the campus created so much anxiety in Aaron that he never came back.

Meanwhile, Aaron’s mother had heard about the nonPareil Institute from an online listserve, and decided that he had nothing to lose by giving it a try. Aaron immediately felt very comfortable there. He had always enjoyed playing video games, and when he discovered that he could use the computer programming skills he was learning at nonPareil to create his own games, he threw himself enthusiastically into the work.

Cooperating with other students with autism at nonPareil has helped Aaron to develop some of the social skills that he had lacked his whole life. He takes great satisfaction in his work and loves the open, supportive atmosphere of the institute, where each student is accepted as they are, and encouraged to develop their capabilities as far as they can take them.

Aaron says that he is “10 times more content and happy at nonPareil than ever before, and would be happy to continue working there for the rest of my life.” Aaron has developed other ambitions. He has learned how to drive a car, and talks about getting married someday and starting a home and family of his own. He has also continued to learn Torah in private sessions with a local rabbi, and attended OU-sponsored Yachad events.

Most important, Aaron says that the satisfaction and self-confidence he has gotten at nonPareil has given him “more faith that he has a place a mission in the world now.” He has also come to view his Asperger’s as at least partially a blessing, because it has given him the ability to focus more completely on those things which are important to him.

But what about much younger children whose families are still struggling with their autism. I asked my daughter, Nechama Spero, whose 8-year-old son, Shalom, is on the spectrum, what expectations she has for him when he grows up.

Nechama responded that Shalom still has a long way to go to overcome his social problems. He is communicative, but has difficulty engaging with other typically developing children. He does better with adults than with his peers. She also expressed some frustration with the privacy rules governing Special Education students, which inhibit Shalom’s opportunities to interact with his classmates outside of school. She never got a class list, and was only able to obtain the phone number of one of his classmates by getting it off of a pair of the child’s socks which Shalom took home from school by mistake one day. Only then did she learn that the other child lived around the corner.

Shalom understands that he goes to a different type of school than his two sisters, and that he is expected to follow a different set of rules than they do when they are at home. But his mother believes that Shalom is not yet ready to accept and understand the explanation for those differences.

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