USC School of Cinematic Arts Premieres Exceptional Minds in Transition, a Rare Glimpse Into the Lives and Minds of Young Animators with Autism

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A common theme throughout the film is a love of animation by young men and women with autism. “Ever since I was a kid, I just really loved animation. It shaped who I am today,” says Laura Robinson, who is on the autism spectrum and an instructor at Exceptional Minds digital arts academy for young adults with autism.

Exceptional Minds vocational school for young adults on the autism spectrum

We chose Exceptional Minds as an example of a successful program for young adults because we wanted to help people in the autism community understand what their options are as they move forward toward independence.

“Stick with me and find out what it really means to be autistic.” So begins Exceptional Minds in Transition, a documentary video released Saturday by the University of Southern California, School of Cinematic Arts (SCA), featuring a rare glimpse into the lives and minds of students from Exceptional Minds digital arts academy.

Exceptional Minds is the first, and currently only, vocational school of its kind located in Sherman Oaks, Calif., for preparing young men and women on the spectrum for careers in movie post-production, digital graphics and video animation. The school and its students are the focus of Exceptional Minds in Transition, part of a collection of videos for the new Interacting with Autism video-based website launched on Saturday, September 28, during an event with expert panelists held on the USC campus.

In the documentary, Laura Cechanowicz, PhD student in the USC School of Cinematic Arts, asks Exceptional Minds students about their childhood, living on their own, and about their love of digital animation. “We chose Exceptional Minds as an example of a successful program for young adults because we wanted to help people in the autism community understand what their options are as they move forward toward independence,” comments Cechanowicz, referring to the estimated million young men and women with autism about to enter adulthood in the next decade.

The documentary was more than a year in the making, and followed students’ lives and the phenomenal growth of Exceptional Minds, which started in 2011 with nine students in a small office suite and by fall of 2013, had tripled enrollment and expanded into a new 3,700 square-foot facility in Sherman Oaks.

At one point in the film, second-year student Nicky Benoist gave the film crew a demonstration of his latest creation, his Cool Carla cartoon animation, and showed them around the apartment he shares with fellow Exceptional Minds student David Miles. After enumerating the significance of the different colors of his karate belt collection, he pauses to think about what he would take out of the apartment if he were moving and could only take two items. “My computer and my 3DS with games in it,” he replies, and then scans the room as if he’s forgotten something. “Oh yea, my wallet and my phone. That’s important. I should realize that’s important,” he says quietly, more to himself than to the camera.

A common theme throughout the film is a love of animation. “Ever since I was a kid, I just really loved animation. It shaped who I am today,” says Laura Robinson, who is an instructor at the school and who is also on the spectrum. “One of the ideas I had floating in the back of my mind for the longest time is I wanted to be an animator. And then I discovered this program,” says student David Miles, recounting his high school experience as “never really positive.” Today, he is creating animations such as his Encounters of Aldous the Penguin.

Later in the video, viewers are introduced to Exceptional Minds second-year student Shane McKaskle, who treats the film crew to a bevy of sound effects and voices for his Car Machine animation series; and Lloyd Hackl, who shows off his onscreen renderings – a cowboy hat, a bandana and a large necklace put on cartoon mouse Fievel (An American Tail) against the advice of his instructor. “Even when it’s going to result in more work (for the student) we don’t discourage them because if they’re passionate about it, nothing is more important than the stuff that really drives them. That’s going to be what they learn and end up doing for work,” says Exceptional Minds instructor Josh Dagg.

By the time the students at Exceptional Minds complete the three-year program, they will have achieved 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. Others will pursue contract work through the Exceptional Minds Studio, a working studio run separately from the school that will open next year for graduates interested in independent contract work such as 3D film conversion (rotoscoping), visual effects cleanup and other graphics and animation post-production or design work in demand.

In June 2014, eight Exceptional Minds students – 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.

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.

About Interacting with Autism ( Interacting with Autism is a video-based website presenting reliable evidence-based information on how to understand, treat and live with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It is designed to reach educators, healthcare workers and individuals on the spectrum and their families, and to help them make informed choices about what approaches might be most effective for any specific individual diagnosed with autism. Funded by the U.S. government’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) and guided by a Board of Advisors and Consultants that includes many of our nation’s leading scientific and medical experts on autism, the production of Interacting with Autism has been directed by three co-investigators from the University of Southern California: Distinguished Professor Mark Jonathan Harris, University Professor Marsha Kinder, and Gisele Ragusa. Please see the site for further information.

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