Exceptional Minds Creates Summer Workshops as Early Career "Intervention" for Young Adults on the Autism Spectrum

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Vocational school and working Hollywood studio is one answer to what's next for young adults with autism who are aging out of the system and eager to enter the workforce as post-production and animation artists.

Summer camps come, and summer camps go. But few leave an impact as lasting or as significant as one very exceptional summer workshop program for school-aged kids on the autism spectrum, now in its final weeks.

More than 30 high-schoolers and young adults have been spending their summer days creating animations, inventing new video games and whipping up special effects at Exceptional Minds, a vocational school for young adults on the autism spectrum. The school opened up its Sherman Oaks studios this summer to a younger crowd in order to provide earlier career intervention for visually-gifted individuals on the spectrum.

According to a recent study prepared for the U.S. Department of Education, one in three young adults with autism lacks job experience and college or technical training eight years after high school graduation.

“Like most parents, I wanted my son to have a fun camp experience. But, unlike a lot of parents, I’m always aware that the clock is ticking and he will be ‘aging out’ of the system as an adult in a few short years. When that happens, we want him to be ready,” says parent Mollie Burns Keith, whose son “PK” is 11 years old and is the youngest enrolled in the Exceptional Minds summer workshop program.

Like many on the spectrum, PK expressed an interest in art at an early age. He has turned his passion into producing animations that have earned him recognition, including an award in 2011 from the International Student Film Festival Hollywood. Now, his mom expects that his experience in Exceptional Minds’ summer workshop program will give him practical skills that he can use for an eventual career in animation.

This summer was the first summer Exceptional Minds opened its doors to school-aged kids. Enrollment filled up quickly for all three workshops offered during the summer break between June and September: flash animation, video game development and special effects creation.

“The goal here is to give these guys something they love to do, something that might help them in the future and will feed their souls,” commented Exceptional Minds Program Director Ernie Merlan.

At least three summer workshop attendees will be returning next year to enroll in Exceptional Minds’ three-year vocational program, which includes technical training for Adobe (ACA) certification, job readiness skills and a professional reel/portfolio that graduates can use to seek employment in the fields of animation, computer graphics and visual affects. Noah Schneider, a three-time award winner of the International Student Film Festival Hollywood, has reserved a space in the full-time program for 2013.

Exceptional Minds is a non-profit working studio and vocational school that has received support from Hollywood notables such as Tom Hanks and Ed Asner, as well as from gaming company ngmoco. Viewed as a one solution for the question of “what’s next?” for those young autistics coming of age, the working studio recently received its second major Hollywood credit as the post-production studio for the closing credits of Lawless, a Weinstein movie that made it into the 2012 Cannes Film Festival competition.

The school and working studio resumes fall classes in September, when 15 young adults on the spectrum will actively pursue certification in animation and post-production through fulltime instruction and working experience in the film industry.

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Dee McVicker
Grassroots Communications
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