Man with autism helps design virtual world to make life better for adults like him

June 29, 2018 by Nanette Light, The Dallas Morning News

Kyle Barton is a 28-year-old guy on the autism spectrum. But he lives like the diagnosis isn't there.

It's not that he's in denial; he just doesn't like the label.

He's got other things on his mind, such as designing the latest development in a virtual learning program steered by the University of Texas at Dallas' Center for BrainHealth.

The program, called Charisma, helps adults on the autism spectrum sharpen their perception of and responses through real-time conversations in a virtual setting.

Barton knows the hurdles that high-functioning adults must jump for acceptance in a world that doesn't "know what to do with them," as he says. A world that would sometimes rather ignore them. A world that often seems just barely out of reach.

For him, it's real life.

Barton spent two years looking for a job after graduating from the University of Texas at Dallas. Prospective employers laughed him out of dozens of interviews, he said. He's even had people accuse him of not being on the spectrum.

"They still have this very Rain Man image of autism," he said, referring to the 1988 movie starring Dustin Hoffman.

Now a staff instructor at the nonPareil Institute, a Plano-based nonprofit that teaches adults with autism job skills such as coding and video game design, Barton's trying to make the world better for others like him.

"I liken being on the spectrum to sort of being separated by a chain link fence," he said. "You can see through the links. You can see the larger world. You can stick your hands through the links. You can kind of feel it. You can smell it, taste and all that. But if you try to climb that fence, you find there's barbed wire at the top. And that's what it feels like."


Barton leans over a student's shoulder as he furiously clicks his mouse. Clickety, click, click.

The student's eyes never leave the screen as he works to build a castle scene during a beginning design course at nonPareil.

"Dude, I already like what you're going for," Barton tells the student.

Not that long ago, he was in the same seat.

Barton, who has brownish-blonde hair that flips to one side and wears button downs with a couple top buttons undone, came to the Plano-based center about four years ago—jobless after graduating two years earlier from UTD with a bachelor's in psychology.

The institute was founded on the idea that by giving adults with autism technical and professional skills, they could lead more independent lives.

Only about 14 percent of adults with who used services funded through state developmental disability agencies in 2014-15 held a paying job in their community, according to the 2017 National Autism Indicators Report from the Philadelphia-based A.J. Drexel Autism Institute.

Barton called the unemployment rate "abhorrent" and stressed the need for places like nonPareil that teach job skills and also employ former students.

"We try to not distinguish when we're talking about someone. Whether they're on the spectrum or not is not the primary piece of who they are," said Daniel Faso, director of program engagement at nonPareil.

For Barton, meeting new people or being in a crowd can be a challenge. After college graduation, he struggled through job interviews, said his mother, Jill Barton.

"Kyle has a lot to offer. If he could just get a chance," she said.

She ticked off accolades like his magna cum laude distinction at UTD, where he also was a dean's scholar, and his summa cum laude honor at Collin College.

"He's very brilliant. I say that as a mother, but he is very smart," she said.

Barton, who was raised in Sachse and home-schooled most of his childhood, didn't receive his official diagnosis until college.

But Jill saw the signs years earlier.

It was after watching a news broadcast when Barton was in middle school that she first began to wonder whether her son with a dry sense of humor that she called "extremely smart" but also anxious could be on the spectrum.

Because Barton was home-schooled, Jill Barton said, she didn't seek a medical perspective because he didn't need the learning assistance.

The challenge came after college when Barton began interviewing for jobs, and his anxiety worsened. He once told his mom it was like a physical pain inside.

"I knew it was tough for him, but I did not realize it was that much of a hardship," she said.


Barton is a film buff. When he can, he visits the Texas Theatre to watch classic flicks.

He talks about movies like they're works of art, not "fleeting spectacles to be tossed aside with the popcorn tub."

Now, he's designed a movie theater of his own.

But here's the catch: The theater isn't real. It only exists on Barton's computer screen. That means you can't smell the buttery popcorn or lick its salty grease off your fingers.

It's the newest piece to Charisma. The program puts adults and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder in social situations that can ignite fear and anxiety—such as ordering a drink from a stranger behind the counter at a coffee shop—and teaches them how to recognize social cues.

"Nothing is scripted or artificial, but it's real people having real conversations as a practice in this game-like setting," said Tandra Allen, who leads virtual training programs at the Center for BrainHealth.

Earlier this year, the university and nonPareil partnered to create the movie theater. The university also is testing the program, which has been in the research stage for almost a decade, on a handful of students in small groups at the Plano-based nonprofit.

The testing will help the brain center scale the program to be administered to multiple people at once. UTD already offers the program to individuals who want to improve their social skills.

Faso, the director of program engagement at nonPareil, said meeting new people is an anxiety- provoking situation for people with autism.

Allen also has noticed that some struggle to read social cues and understand how someone feels when they meet for the first time. Misinterpreting sarcasm can make things especially confusing.

"And that tends to lead to fear and anxiety of knowing, 'How do I respond?' " Allen said.

After using the program, participants have improved emotion recognition and understanding of others' intentions, the brain center has found. Allen said they also are more likely to initiate conversations.

Brain imaging studies have credited the program with changing brain levels so that the brain recognizes more socially relevant information.

After the first round of testing, nonPareil students had the biggest strides in confrontational situations such as self-advocacy and saying what they need, Allen said.

It's the kind of program that Barton says would have made middle school "a heck of a lot easier."

Now, he's made it his mission to improve life for others with autism.

"I wanted to give them hope, show them that, 'Hey, they can make it,' " he said. "A lot of people come here dejected. They just feel like they don't have any place to go."

Explore further: Social awareness increases prove brain changing in adults with autism


Related Stories

Social awareness increases prove brain changing in adults with autism

March 28, 2018
Researchers at the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas, in collaboration with co-leading authors at George Washington University and Yale, have demonstrated in a pilot study that a clinician-driven ...

Link found between neurotransmitter imbalance, brain connectivity in those with autism

June 6, 2018
One in 59 children in the United States lives with a form of autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The signs of autism begin in early childhood and can affect individuals differently. ...

Virtual reality helps children on autism spectrum improve social skills

September 22, 2016
Although most children with high-functioning autism have above average intellectual capabilities, they often experience social difficulties. Deficits in social communication and difficulty inhibiting thoughts and regulating ...

How it feels to be diagnosed with autism later in life

March 7, 2018
"He is wired differently to you and me, this child of mine. He doesn't like loud noises, or dark spaces, or strangers touching his head". These are the first lines from a poem a mother penned about her son 11-year-old son ...

Researchers examine social functioning in middle-aged adults with autism spectrum disorders

December 20, 2017
A new Autism Research report describes the social functioning of 169 adults with autism spectrum disorders in mid-life who were first identified with autism in childhood in the 1980s. Participants spanned all levels of cognitive ...

Study finds way to predict treatment effectiveness for adults with autism

June 14, 2017
A collaboration between the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas and the George Washington University created a protocol to predict individual treatment effectiveness for adults on the autism spectrum. ...

Recommended for you

Music improves social communication in autistic children

November 5, 2018
Engaging in musical activities such as singing and playing instruments in one-on-one therapy can improve autistic children's social communication skills, improve their family's quality of life, as well as increase brain connectivity ...

Unraveling a genetic network linked to autism

November 2, 2018
Donnelly Centre researchers have uncovered a genetic network linked to autism. The findings, described in the journal Molecular Cell, will facilitate developing new therapies for this common neurological disorder.

Study links gene mutation to neurodevelopmental disorders

November 2, 2018
A new model created by UCLA scientists reveals how the alteration of a specific gene increases the risk for neurodevelopmental problems in mice. When the researchers mutated the gene, it produced symptoms at specific ages ...

Common medications taken during pregnancy are not associated with risk for autism

October 31, 2018
Babies exposed in the womb to the majority of medications that target neurotransmitter systems, including typical targets of antidepressants and antipsychotic drugs, are not any more likely to develop autism than non-exposed ...

Brainwave activity reveals potential biomarker for autism in children

October 29, 2018
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that can impair communication ability, socialization, and verbal and motor skills. It generally starts in early childhood and is diagnosed through behavior observation. ...

In kids with autism, short questionnaire may detect GI disorders

October 22, 2018
Anger, aggression, and other troubling behavior problems in kids with autism are often treated as psychological issues, but in many cases the problems can be traced to gastrointestinal distress.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.