Exceptional Minds Digital Arts Academy Changes the Meaning of Summer Camp for Youth with Autism

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Youth with autism explore digital animation, visual effects, website design and video game development at Exceptional Minds summer program, which is modeled after the digital arts school’s full time vocational program.

Exceptional Minds vocational school for young adults on the autism spectrum

Though this may not be a course on making friends, that sure seems to be the result of two weeks at Exceptional Minds for these young artists with autism spectrum disorders. They like the same things and they just ‘get’ each other.

Summer time is all about new adventures and making new friends, both of which can be difficult for kids with autism. But not so for the youth attending summer workshops at Exceptional Minds digital arts academy for young adults on the autism spectrum, which opened a new facility in June because of generous donations from organizations and individuals concerned with the lack of programs for a rising population of youth with autism.

It is here that young adults and youth 14 and above with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are able to explore the digital arts along with their peers who face similar challenges.

“We’re not your typical summer program. We model what was so successful for us in our young adult vocational program so that instead of trying to create a typical camp experience, we’ve created a program around what they like to do and happen to do exceptionally well,” said Program Director Ernie Merlan with Exceptional Minds, which offers a full-time program in the fall to prepare young adults on the spectrum for careers in digital arts vocations and offers similar, but shorter workshops for younger youth on the spectrum in the summer.

This is the second summer the school has offered introductory classes in digital animation, visual effects, website design and video game development for youth on the spectrum 14 and up.

Exceptional Minds was founded in 2011 to prepare young adults living with autism spectrum disorders for meaningful careers in digital animation, post-production and multimedia. It is the only digital arts academy of its kind in the nation with a three-year vocational program centered on industry-recognized certification, boasting a 100 percent student pass rate for one or more Adobe certification programs its second year of operation. In addition to its full-time program, the vocational school also provides private tutoring for individuals in need of one-on-one instruction.

During eight, two-week sessions, youth develop skills in Adobe Flash to make cartoon animations and computer games, while others work with Adobe Dreamweaver to design websites. Some use Adobe After Effects to create visual effects for motion picture work. Still others work independently or with a small group on personal projects. New this year are lessons in live action animation using the latest blue screen technology now available at Exceptional Minds’ new high-tech facility, which was opened in June 2013 to expand student enrollment due to heightened demand.

Almost a million young people with autism in the U.S. will reach adulthood in the next decade, many with limited job prospects and few training options. With the new facility, Exceptional Minds will more than double its full-time student enrollment in the fall; it has already doubled enrollment to more than 75 for its summer program running through July and part of August. In addition to a new media center, the school’s classrooms are equipped with new iMac computers provided at cost by MelroseMAC. The computers can project work onto a large screen at the front of the classroom or directly on to the big screen in the theater room for detailed instruction and work collaboration. The new facility also has an expanded network server and storage capacity to feed the school’s growing appetite for big data that comes with video applications.

Among the names and organizations making the new space possible are Autism Speaks, Adobe Systems, Newman’s Own Foundation, DreamWorks Animation, The Riordan Foundation, Bob Stevenson and Neil Young, previously with Ngmoco, and others such as Tom Von Der Ahe of VDA Properties, which customized the new space at the school’s current address at a reduced rate.

“Though this may not be a course on making friends,” Merlan said, “that sure seems to be the result of two weeks at Exceptional Minds for these young artists with autism spectrum disorders. They like the same things and they just ‘get’ each other.”

In the first summer session there were 27 students from all over the world– New Jersey, Hawaii, Singapore – and right away, the group developed a very close camaraderie, according to Merlan. For some it was the first time they’d ever been in a classroom group setting. For others it was simply the first time they had been amongst their peers.

The school’s move into new high-tech classrooms in June marks the start of an ambitious, three-phase expansion that includes a new working studio for its graduates to pursue work in the fields of animation, rotoscoping, website design and visual effects.

About Exceptional Minds (http://www.exceptionalmindsstudio.org):
Exceptional Minds is a non-profit vocational center and working production studio for young adults on the autism spectrum. It was 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 careers. Exceptional Minds offers technical proficiency and work readiness training that prepares 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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