Autism Awareness Month

Houston organization is providing access to special education resources 'anywhere there is Wi-Fi'

Houston-based Incuentro provides online education with individuals with Autism, ADD, Asperger's, social anxiety, or learning differences — as well as parents or employers. Getty Images

A Houston-based online platform is hoping to provide easy access to special education resources to support individuals with special needs, as well as their employers, teachers, and caregivers — or anyone with internet access.

The online program, Incuentro, launched April 1, coinciding with the start of Autism Awareness Month. The first 15 classes are slated to go live in June. These virtual classes are intended to be a resource for people from first grade all the way through adulthood who are coping with Autism, ADD, Asperger's, social anxiety, or learning differences.

"Over 30 students participated in the pilot program over the past 9 months," says Wendy Dawson, founder of Incuentro. "I've seen students relate to the lessons, make connections with the topics, engage in peer conversation, and find support and learning in a safe environment."

Students learn and practice skills applicable to school, employment, and social situations in the virtual company of a qualified teacher and peers from the comfort of their own home. The teaching style is as interactive as possible and requires participants to engage in discussion.

Life education
Dawson says that students will get the most out of this experience if they are verbal, able to sustain attention, and participate in a video conference forum. Hour-long classes focus on friendship, behavior, social interactions in the primary and elementary years, while tweens focus on making peer connections.

"We want to provide help upfront to reduce the anxiety and depression that we commonly see later in life," Dawson says.

Teen classes set up students with skills for future employment and transitions post-high school. Adult learners benefit from job skills and workplace behavior norms.

Students who are employed or looking for employment learn about topics like conversing with coworkers and supervisors, appropriate social interactions, and understanding the rules of the workplace. Equally important, teachers discuss with participants ways that they can be their own advocate as they maneuver through society.

A focus on inclusion
Incuentro offers employer training as well, to help foster a climate of inclusion in the workplace, to discourage a lowering of expectations when accommodating employees with Autistic traits. Classes give supervisors understanding and practicalities that will foster a positive environment for employees who are also enrolled in the course.

"Employers are coached on topics such as: understanding a literal mind, being factual, making simple accommodations like visual schedules, delivering information in a low-stress manner, and understanding learning styles," Dawson says.

Incuentro helps to bridge the gap between the service and people in need through technology.

"There is a huge disconnect between the people who need services, and the actual resources. Many times they don't know where to go, or are too far away to access them."

All you need is internet access
Accessing the classes remotely removes the barrier of accessibility for people in rural areas, as well as people who would rather not drive to a class after a long day at work or school. Oftentimes, students will feel more comfortable participating in a one-hour, online discussion with 5-7 peers, rather than enduring the social pressures of a classroom setting.

"Our desire is to bring access to special education expertise to anywhere there is Wi-Fi," says Dawson.

Incuentro curriculum is created by Education Visionary Specialist Brandi Timmons, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and a Licensed Behavior Analyst (LBA). Classes are taught by expert teachers who specialize in special needs education.

Family business
Dawson's passion behind Incuentro was inspired by her step-son, Cameron Dawson, who was diagnosed with Autism at the age of two.

"There were no services to fit his needs available in the market," Dawson says, "so we've spent 10 years advocating and learning, and figuring out how to best bring services to people who need them."

Cameron participated in the Incuentro pilot program while attending Texas Tech, and in May he will be graduating with his degree in Communication Studies. Upon returning home to Houston, he will be seeking a job in one of many local churches, where Dawson says he has experienced love and support throughout his life.

As a mother of a child with Autism and advocate for people with special needs, Dawson has seen the challenges faced by parents. Parents not only must navigate the ups and downs of school life and home life with their child each step of the way, but also plan next steps past high school graduation, and long-term care, if necessary. Incuentro helps to facilitate the discussion and provide resources for caregivers wanting to learn what options are available.

With April designated as Autism Awareness Month, Incuentro seeks to partner with organizations serving special needs populations, such as school districts, health clinics, or Autism support networks, and reach the people who need it most. Incuentro has pledged to donate a portion of its profits to a Houston non-profit that offers in-person classes for people with special needs, Social Motion. At its heart, Incuentro intends to be an answer to the question: how do we set individuals with special needs up for success, and help give them the tools to live an independent and fulfilling life?

Brandi Timmons (left) and Wendi Dawson, Incuentro founderCourtesy of Incuentro

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Building Houston

 
 

Fertitta and his family have gifted $50 million to UH's medical school. Photo courtesy

As Houston’s most high-profile billionaire and owner of the posh 5-star Post Oak Hotel and Houston Rockets, Tilman J. Fertitta has become synonymous with over-the-top opulence and big-time entertainment.

But the CEO of the massive Feritta Entertainment empire’s latest move has nothing to do with penthouses or point guards, but rather a legacy, game-changing appropriation meant to aid his home state’s health.

The longtime UH board member and former chairman and his family have just pledged $50 million to the University of Houston College of Medicine. In turn, the new medical school has been christened the Tilman J. Fertitta Family College of Medicine.

The projected school, upon completion. Rendering courtesy of University of Houston

This landmark gift aims to address the state’s critical primary care physician shortage, (especially in low-income and underserved communities), as well as attract innovation-focused scholars, UH notes.

Additionally, the grant is meant to further clinical and translational research, with an emphasis on population health, behavioral health, community engagement, and the social determinants of health, according to a press release.

Here is how the Fertitta family gift will be distributed:

  • $10 million funds five endowed chairs for faculty hires who are considered national stars in their fields with a focus on health care innovation. This portion of the gift will be matched one-to-one as part of the University’s “$100 Million Challenge” for chairs and professorships, doubling the endowed principal to $20 million.
  • $10 million establishes an endowed scholarship fund to support endowed graduate research stipends/fellowships for medical students.
  • $10 million will cover start-up costs for the Fertitta Family College of Medicine to enhance research activities including facilities, equipment, program costs and graduate research stipends/fellowships.
  • $20 million will create the Fertitta Dean’s Endowed Fund to support research-enhancing activities.

No stranger to writing big checks, Fertitta donated $20 million to UH Athletics — the largest individual donation ever — in 2016 to transform UH’s basketball arena into the now high-tech Fertitta Center.

CultureMap caught up with the CEO (who just sold his Golden Nugget gaming for $1.6 billion), best-selling author, and Billion Dollar Buyer to discuss his landmark gift.

CultureMap: Congratulations on this legacy grant, which has been a long time coming. What does this gift mean to you, now that it’s finally official?

Tilman Fertitta: This was a vision of our chancellors and, you know, I’m on my third, six-year term and not been the chairman for eight years — and we started working on this, seven, eight years ago.

To be able to be in the beginning and the nucleus, and the idea, and what we wanted, and to get the approval from Austin—to watch it come to fruition, how often does somebody get to do a naming gift at the same time they had a lot to do with the creation of the school? So, it was very special in my heart.

CM: Many know you as the CEO of a hospitality empire, author, and even TV personality. But not many know of your commitment to healthcare.


TF: I think there’s one thing in this world that we definitely should always be treated equally on, and that's that’s equal health care for all. This medical school will serve the whole community.

We’re trying to recruit students who want to be primary physicians who will take care of the community that we live in. It’s just something that was very important to me in my whole family.

CM: Academia, scholarship, and research aside, this could essentially be looked at as seed capital for a fledgling operation. Is that a fair assessment?

TF: I know where you’re going with this and yes, it’s no different than business.

I have the vision to know that being in nearly the third largest city in America and a top 100 university in the United States — as University of Houston is according to U.S. News & World Report — that I know what this is going to be in 50 years. It’s no different than looking at another business that you start and you can have the vision to see how successful it'll be in the years to come.

Being on the ground floor of the University of Houston Medical School and being a part of it from its inception, and to help the seed money that will attract other money, I know that in the years to come what a special nationwide medical school this is going to be — because it’s in one of the great cities of America.

So, to be a part of it today and still be a part of it when I’m not here 50 years from now, maybe even sooner than that [laughs], you know, it’s going to be something very special to always be attached to.

CM: Other Houston medical schools here have distinctions in pivotal research or groundbreaking procedures. Is there a specific direction you’d like UH Med to take, going forward?

TF: Honestly, you know, what I’ve been saying? There’s a significant shortage of primary care physicians, not only in the country, but in the state of Texas. We ranked number 47th in the nation.

What we need in the state of Texas, as well in Houston and everywhere, is primary care physicians to take care of your everyday people—and to see them to know if you need a specialist.

I hope that this medical school looks back and we see that they’re graduating more primary care physicians than any other university in the United States and that's our goal. We’re going to be a med school of the community.

CM: You have zero problem with issuing directives, Tilman. What’s your message to the first graduating class, the one that will initially benefit from this $50 million gold mine?

TF: Go out and take care of the people.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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