Young Adults With Autism Set to Beat the Odds as the First Graduating Class of Exceptional Minds

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Exceptional Minds students with autism are bound for the movie industry as they start their third and final year at the digital arts academy, poised to beat the odds that disfavor a growing population of young people with autism who are unemployed or underemployed with few prospects for lifelong careers.

Exceptional Minds vocational school for young adults on the autism spectrum

What society might view as a burden, we at Exceptional Minds see as potential.

Monday marked yet another milestone for Exceptional Minds’ first graduating class of 2014, a small group of young, twenty-something adults with autism who are beating the odds.

They arrived at Exceptional Minds’ new facility on Riverside Drive in Sherman Oaks, California, at 10 a.m. for the start of their third and final year at the digital arts academy for young adults with autism, each with at least two professional accreditations and a wide variety of experience in the digital arts field, including a movie credit or two to their name – all attained their first two years with the school.

In June 2014, all eight – seven exceptional young men and one exceptional woman -- will graduate the vocational school as the first in a generation of individuals with autism who are able to pursue meaningful careers in the fields of animation, post production and digital graphics. In doing so, they will have beaten the odds that disfavor a growing population of children with autism now entering adulthood, an overwhelming majority of whom are unemployed or underemployed with few prospects for lifelong careers.

"I look at these guys today and it’s hard to believe they’re the same wide-eyed group that started here two years ago. They’ve come so far, both professionally and as an amazing example for anyone with a disability and certainly all our students that will come after them," said Ernie Merlan, Exceptional Minds’ Program Director, who started his tenure with Exceptional Minds the same day as the class of 2014, himself fresh from the field with 20 years’ experience working on imagineering projects for Disney, Universal and ABC.

He says each is as unique as the spectrum of symptoms that affect individuals living with autism: Chris Chapman, whose love of music is now evident in his animations and who is now able to live independently on his own; Patrick Brady, a super hero-loving animator whose quiet demeanor belies his creativity and leadership as a mentor; Danny Gott, who was more likely to be bullied than befriended as a youth but is today affectionately known as the Ambassador of Communications at Exceptional Minds because of his warm smile and quirky bow; Lloyd Hackl, whose early fascination with rendering Disney castles bordered on the obsessive but now make him one of the school’s most skilled 3D rotoscopers; Kevin Titcher, a young Hispanic whose talent is now evident in his trademark animation spoofs; Justin Klug, an avid wrestling fan who has channeled his creative energies into stunning visual effects; Ari Guthrie, whose insightful observations were largely lost on her peers in high school but now shine through in her storied animations; and Eli Katz, who had a dream of one day becoming a respected professional in the field of digital animation and, like his fellow classmates at Exceptional Minds, is close to realizing his dream.

"What society might view as a burden, we at Exceptional Minds see as potential. These guys see the world visually and they’re good at technology. All we’ve done at Exceptional Minds is provide the right tools, the right instructors and the right environment to nurture that," commented Merlan.

Since the school opened its doors in 2011, Exceptional Minds students, instructors, and even the school’s facility have grown in both measurable and immeasurable ways. Starting with nine students in a small office suite, the school has almost tripled enrollment in two years and expanded into a new 3,700 square-foot facility. The new facility opened for fulltime use this week with a state-of-the-art blue-screen room for Chroma keying; a theatrical lighting and staging room; a personal project studio plus web-design room; and room for a new working studio for Exceptional Minds graduates to pursue contract work for companies and movie studios if desired.

The eight students started with Exceptional Minds’ three-year program in 2011 and will be the first to graduate from the new facility in June 2014, achieving proficiency in six software applications considered the gold standard in the digital visual effects industry, including at least three Adobe applications. Some will pursue their dream of working for a post-production or 3D animation studio in nearby Los Angeles based on the skills learned at Exceptional Minds, including working experience such as paid title work for the 2010 major motion picture Lawless and visual effects work for an upcoming movie to be released this year.

Others will pursue contract work through the Exceptional Minds Studio, a working studio run separately from the school that will open in the spring for graduates pursuing independent contract work such as 3D film conversion (rotoscoping), visual effects clean-up and other graphics and animation post-production or design work in demand. "We have a mixture of talent in our first graduating class that continues to inspire and surprise us. I can’t wait to see what they will do next," said Merlan.

About Exceptional Minds (

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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