COLUMBIA — Teri Walden and Becky Llorens met as two women with a common interest. As parents of young adults with autism, they saw a need for a post-secondary education program that would continue assisting people with autism when they became adults.
The pair created EnCircle Technologies in September 2013. The company is a nonprofit intended to teach young adults with autism how to use technology including operating systems, HTML and computer programs such as Microsoft Excel and Photoshop.
The name EnCircle was inspired by something Llorens saw in Muir Woods National Monument in California: a tree encircled and supported by the trees around it.
"The idea is that (the students) are being supported by their parents and the community," Walden said. "As we increase their skills, they become the supporters."
The program has offered 10 classes so far, five of which were held this summer. Now, Walden and Llorens are seeking more funding.
On July 14, they created a campaign on crowdsourcing website Indiegogo to raise $10,000 for program resources. The campaign lasts until Aug. 13; as of Thursday afternoon, about $10,455 had been raised.
"There is a crisis in adult services for people with autism," said Julie Donnelly, who is board member of EnCircle. "The law requires education for all people, including those with autism, but there is very little to help them after graduation."
Donnelly has spent her career working with people with autism and teaching students of all ages and at all levels on the autism spectrum. She has also worked as a consultant, presented in conferences and published work documenting the perspectives of people with autism.
Donnelly said some people with autism can be very bright but lack social skills, such as the inability to keep eye contact, which can make it hard for them to do well in interviews and get jobs.
According to the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders at MU, people with autism spectrum disorder show difficulties with social communication and interaction. They also can have repetitive behaviors or restricted interests. The severity and types of behaviors observed vary greatly within the spectrum.
For the students in the program, the classes are exciting.
"He really enjoys it," Llorens said of her 22-year-old son, Nick, who graduated from Rock Bridge High School in 2012 and is now enrolled in the program. "He gets excited when it's Wednesday and he gets to come to EnCircle."
His classmate, 2014 Rock Bridge graduate Ian Lloyd, 18, also enjoys attending the program. He said he likes the variety of classes and the people at EnCircle.
Lloyd is studying for an associate degree in computer information technology at Moberly Area Community College's Columbia campus. His father, Brian Lloyd, is an EnCircle instructor who teaches students how to use the Linux operating system.
"This is a fantastic program," Brian Lloyd said. "It offers the best chance for autistic adults to learn skills to have an independent life."
Brian Lloyd said that when his son was diagnosed with autism, he didn't know the best way to help him. EnCircle aims to change that.
EnCircle "is a niche that has been missing for so long," said John Mark Cooley, a Columbia Public Schools learning specialist who attended a recent awareness and fundraising event held by the nonprofit. "I have referred several students from my program to it."
Cooley, who works at Rock Bridge, taught Walden's 19-year-old son, Cody, through one of many special programs provided by the district. He said programs like these help people with autism after high school.
Although universities have disability services, he said, sometimes a student's unique needs would require that the course be drastically modified, such as altering parts of the curriculum.
MU does not have any programs strictly for students on the autism spectrum, but Justin Lozano, an access adviser for MU's Disability Center, said more formal supports are being explored.
"We are currently in the process of getting a mentor on board who has offered to work with students because of his own experience living on the spectrum," Lozano said.
"These kids are the future of the world," Cooley said, "because they think outside of the boundaries that we think inside of.
"They see possibilities that we cannot."
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.