Autism Job Challenge Addressed Head-On with New Work Readiness Program by Exceptional Minds Digital Arts Academy

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Gaps in social skills could affect the job prospects of an estimated million young men and women with autism in the coming decade. Exceptional Minds vocational school for young adults with autism is now developing a soft skills job readiness curriculum to prepare its students, and in the process, could provide the model for employing a growing population of individuals with ASD.

Exceptional Minds vocational school for young adults on the autism spectrum

What we know is that for a lot of those behaviors that other people might develop naturally and intuitively, the autism population can develop too, but they just have to be taught it specifically.

For the students at Exceptional Minds, a digital arts academy for young adults on the autism spectrum, mastering the art of computer animation is the easy part. Much more difficult for these students with autism are the “soft skills” required to land and keep a job in their chosen field, a challenge that Exceptional Minds is addressing head-on with its new job readiness program.

“I think we can now say with certainty that this population is going to have no problem with the technology,” said Exceptional Minds’ Program Director Ernie Merlan, referring to his students’ 99 percent pass rate for industry accreditation and subsequent work experience on projects such as major motion picture Lawless. “As the first vocational school doing this, our next area of development is the social training our students will need to get and keep meaningful jobs,” he added.

Exceptional Minds is the first digital arts academy in the nation with a three-year vocational program that prepares individuals living with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) for meaningful careers in computer animation, post-production and multimedia. Sailing through its first two years with unprecedented successes in technical proficiency training for its growing population of students with ASD, the school is now preparing its young adults for employment with a new work readiness program in partnership with Laurie Stephens, Ph.D., Director of Clinical Services for Education Spectrum, Altadena, California.

“A work or college readiness curriculum for this population doesn’t exist anywhere. Yet, what we know is that for a lot of those behaviors that other people might develop naturally and intuitively, the autism population can develop too, but they just have to be taught it specifically,” commented Dr. Stephens, who has spent more than 25 years in private practice working with youth on the spectrum, including designing primary and secondary education curricula for this population.

“We are trialing our ideas now and from what we discover in the next few months, Exceptional Minds will be able to develop a complete work readiness curriculum that will be incorporated into their technical training and, hopefully, be useful as a model for similar schools in the future,” said Dr. Stephens, who has started weekly two-hour sessions with Exceptional Minds students to develop a curriculum around issues such as punctuality, organization, change in the workplace and interacting with supervisors and clients.

Gaps in social skills, difficulty working in groups, and adapting to change are all hallmarks of autism spectrum disorders (ASD), which will affect the job prospects of an estimated million young adults in the coming decade. These individuals are statistically more likely to have difficulty with the social norms needed to attain a meaningful career, and are less likely to keep a job as a result, even though their skills and technical proficiency may very well exceed others in their age group. “What we’re learning at Exceptional Minds is that a lot of these individuals know the right answers. What they don’t know is how to implement or use this knowledge,” commented Dr. Stephens, citing change as one of the more challenging workplace skills for this population to master.

One example: “What if the client wants something in yellow, and the student wants it in purple? We want to be able to give these students the social and cognitive skills to handle that,” said Dr. Stephens, adding, “Much of it is showing them where the boundaries are. The goal is to let them know when their behaviors or statements may be unexpected and what to do about it.”

With soft skills training and what many view as this population’s technical advantage, graduates of Exceptional Minds’ three-year digital arts program could very well be strong candidates for fulfilling jobs in multimedia, computer animation and post-production -- especially given another hallmark of ASD. “This is a very honest population, so in terms of their ability to ask questions and to not oversell themselves, that’s of real value to employers,” commented Dr. Stephens.

Exceptional Minds’ job readiness program kicked off with a two-hour, in-classroom session on May 9, after a preliminary introduction and observation of the school’s 15 students by Dr. Stephens during the month of April. The academy will continue in-classroom sessions at least once weekly until the end of the 2013 school year, and based on findings, will start the 2013/2014 school year with a comprehensive job readiness curriculum that will include instructor training and incorporate “soft” skills training into students’ project development similar to a real work environment.

“We’re approaching this next phase of student development like we’ve approached everything else in the two years that we’ve been at this. We are taking it one student at a time, and fine tuning the process as we go,” said Merlan.

About Exceptional Minds (

Exceptional Minds is a non-profit vocational center and working production studio for young adults on the autism spectrum. Chartered in 2011 to provide the training necessary for creatively-gifted individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) who may not otherwise be able to make the transition from high school to the working world, Exceptional Minds offers technical proficiency and work readiness skills that prepare students for careers in graphic arts, animation, web design, visual effects and rotoscoping. Located in Sherman Oaks, California, Exceptional Minds is both an instructional learning facility and a working studio with hands-on student involvement in production projects, many for the film industry.

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