Autistic young adults learn to make a living at specialized digital arts school

“American Hustle” racked up 10 Oscar nominations this year — all with the help of four young adults on the autism spectrum.

The group provided technical expertise — color correction and the visual effects technique known as rotoscoping — for the film, thanks to skills they learned at Exceptional Minds, a digital arts school in Sherman Oaks for young adults on the autism spectrum.

Josh Dagg, 28, the lead instructor at the school, said watching the movie with the students — especially the credits, where students saw their own names appear — was particularly special: “Getting to see that name as it goes past is always a very heavy experience. It’s something everyone treasures in the business. The idea is that we’ve made it possible, we’ve made it happen. As long as people give us the chance we can keep making it happen for years and change people’s lives.”

Founded in 2011 by Amit Bernstein, an Israeli (who has since left the organization), along with parents of autistic teens, Exceptional Minds is a three-year nonprofit vocational school where young adults gain skills in animation, computer graphics and visual effects. Students work toward Adobe certification and receive work on paying-client projects, as well as training in workplace behavior.

It’s intended to focus on a very real problem. A study published in 2012 in the Journal of Pediatrics reported that one in every three adults with autism has no paid job experience, or college or technical schooling almost seven years after high school graduation.

“What’s going to happen to our kids after high school? Who wants their kids to be on social security at age 18?” said Yudi Bennett, the program’s co-founder, director of operations and a parent of one of its students.

“Every kid goes out to pursue their dream. Our kids go out to work at Petco, at Walgreens. If a kid wants to be an artist or animator, should you tell them not to pursue their dreams? This is about them having the same opportunity,” she said.

A significant number of parents on the board of Exceptional Minds, as well as some of its founders, are Jewish. Bennett, the daughter of a rabbi, explained that her work at Exceptional Minds is motivated in part by Jewish ethics.except-group-72

“I was raised with an understanding of the importance of doing good deeds, of tikkun olam and tzedakah,” she said. “We’re helping to develop a future for individuals whose future might otherwise be challenged or limited, and I hope we’re doing good for both those individuals and society at large by putting those students to work.”

Guest speakers and executives of animation companies visit Exceptional Minds to meet with students — Tom Klein, an animation producer for “The Simpsons,” gave a lesson on storyboarding — and students have gone on field trips to Warner Bros., DreamWorks and Nickelodeon, where they met artists.

“The collective wisdom from [autism] professionals is to look for strength and talent … things they [autistic young adults] have intense interest in, and to find ways to capitalize on that,” said Barbara Helfing, an education and behavior consultant for Exceptional Minds.

“We find students experience a sense of relief when they come because they’re working in areas of strength, and their abilities are appreciated. They experience a sense of belief and belonging and have some hope for their futures, which is pretty awesome. They might not have gotten that in [other] schools.”

Few vocational programs for autistic young adults exist, and Exceptional Minds, which has a 4-to-1 student-teacher ratio, grew from eight to 25 students in three years. Students are from across the United States, as well as abroad, and two students are taught over Skype. Exceptional Minds also has a summer program with around 75 students, as well as a part-time program, and offers private tutoring.

Prices differ by program, but tuition for full-time students for 2014-15 will be $18,000. This is a subsidized price, as it costs the school more than $30,000 per student per academic year, according to a school official. 

Located at 13400 Riverside Drive in Sherman Oaks, the 3,700-square-foot facility houses three classrooms, a theatrical lighting and staging room, a Web design room and a blue-screen room for chroma keying. Vegetable figurines (students had to create animated figures out of vegetables) and animal drawings hang on classroom walls, and students work in rows next to each other, with instructors in the room to answer questions. 

In one classroom recently, first-year students worked with Photoshop on an assignment where they had to give an occupation to an animal. One student gave a Michael Jackson look to a sea monster, while a second made a “rock otter.”

Adam Schering, 30, showed off two of his animated characters on his computer: a short girl in a pink tutu-like skirt who stood adjacent to a taller girl in darker colors.

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“She’s the type of girl who cares about looking pretty,” he said, referring to the girl in pink. “I make all of the colors flashy. She’s got a smile on her face. She’s even doing a bit of a curtsy for you. While Tiffany [the other girl] doesn’t even want to look at you.”

He explained how certain details matter — characters will be drawn from a frontal or side view, depending on whether they are suspicious or not.

First-year students gain certifications in 2D animation and in Photoshop, while second- and third-years can choose to specialize in Adobe Illustrator, After Effects, Premiere or Dreamweaver. Its first graduating class this year consists of eight students who will all be certified in three Adobe programs and have completed 40 hours of contract work for a company. Depending on graduates’ social skills, Exceptional Minds will help them find work in a private studio, in the school’s own studio or as an instructor there.

Aside from its technical training, Exceptional Minds has a work-readiness program, led by a behavioral psychologist, that teaches proper workplace etiquette and how to behave with a future supervisor or co-worker. In one exercise, the psychologist gave each student a gift, ranging from a fake free trip to Europe to a pair of dirty socks, and they had to thank her correctly.

“They pick up tech skills here like nobody’s business,” Bennett said. “It’s the soft skills, the social skills, the unwritten rules of how to work in a workplace. We use clips from ‘The Office’ and ‘The Big Bang Theory’ to show what you can and can’t do.”

Instructors, who receive training on autism from an education and behavioral consultant, reinforce these lessons throughout the course, and the social behavior of students changes.

Mayi Brady, the mother of a student who worked on “American Hustle,” the film “Lawless” and the animated television show “Futurama,” said the connection for them was instant. 

“We went there, and it was magical for Patrick,” she said. “All of a sudden, he went, ‘This is what I want to do.’… It was instantaneous for him, for myself and for my husband. We looked at ourselves and said, ‘Thank God.’ 

“He changed his social behavior in the way that, once this program is over, he realizes that he needs to be his own advocate,” she said. “This has made him more self-assertive. He knows what he’s talking about now, and that makes him more comfortable.”

Bennett isn’t surprised by the positive change.

“It’s a no-brainer in a lot of ways,” she said. “These kids are doing something they love doing, and what’s more motivating than that?”