Autism Job Challenge Being Met by Exceptional Minds and Its Newest Board Member

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Movie production manager Robert Hackl joins other Exceptional Minds pioneers and parents to create new job opportunities for young adults with autism, the first wave of the one in 68 now being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders.

Exceptional Minds school and working studio for young adults on the autism spectrum.

Exceptional Minds, vocational school for young adults on the autism spectrum

We’ve come a long way in the last 20 years in our understanding of autism, but for all the talk of making autistic people part of our society, this last step of integrating them into the workforce is proving very difficult.

With 1 in 68 kids now diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder and almost a million young people with autism beginning to enter into adulthood, the first-wave parents of this national epidemic are rising to the challenge once again – this time creating new job opportunities for their adult sons and daughters with autism.

Among them is Robert Hackl, who joins other like-minded individuals as the most recent board member of Exceptional Minds digital arts academy for young adults with autism. Previously serving on the Exceptional Minds advisory board, Hackl and wife Yvonne have been active in helping to define the Exceptional Minds mission since its earliest days. Exceptional Minds was launched in 2011 by some of the original founders of the grassroots organizations that anyone with an autistic child knows well, the very pioneers who started schools and raised funds for autism research. Most are well known in their field, and in the movie industry in particular; like Hackl, they are driven to create a future for their adult children with autism.

“We’ve come a long way in the last 20 years in our understanding of autism, but for all the talk of making autistic people part of our society, this last step of integrating them into the workforce is proving very difficult,” said Robert, a well-known motion picture production manager whose son Lloyd was diagnosed with autism as a toddler and showed artistic abilities at an early age. When it became apparent that Lloyd wouldn’t be able to compete for jobs like others his age, Robert and wife Yvonne, who also works in the industry, decided to introduce him to the family business.

Lloyd was one of the first students to enroll in Exceptional Minds, which has reached international acclaim for its approach in preparing young adults with autism for meaningful careers in visual post-production and other digital arts fields. For Lloyd’s first major working film experience, he did the end titles for the 2011 film Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer. He needed only three weeks to learn how to operate Adobe Illustrator, a software program for composing and editing sophisticated graphics, and at age 19 he served as chief layout artist for the end titles on Judy Moody. "Ever since I was little, I've loved movie credits and have memorized the end titles of all my favorites," he said at the time.

Now 22 and in his third and final year at Exceptional Minds, Lloyd recently helped complete post-production compositing and rotoscoping for Oscar-nominated film American Hustle alongside his father, Exceptional Minds instructor Josh Dagg and three other students at the school. Robert was the visual effects contractor for the film, and although he said he is pleased his son and the others were able to work on such a high-profile project, he wouldn’t have subcontracted the work to Exceptional Minds unless the students were capable of doing it. “That’s very important. In order for this to work, beyond competitive pricing which is always a given, they have to be very capable and also able to work to deadlines. The other parents and members of the board of Exceptional Minds understand that, and it’s one reason why this approach has proven to be successful,” said Robert, who has worked on more than 42 films and television shows, including Good Will Hunting, Lawless and American Hustle, as a visual effects and post producer.

Although a regular around the Exceptional campus for some time, Robert now officially joins other high-achievers on the Exceptional Minds board -- an interesting mix of individuals who stand out professionally and who have become personal advocates for their children with autism. Among the Exceptional Minds staff and board are actor Ed Asner, who has a son and grandson on the spectrum, and two DGA Frank Capra Lifetime Achievement recipients. Working side-by-side is a business consultant to NASA and a gaming industry entrepreneur; an imagineering designer and an accountant; an adman and a systems engineer – all united by the drive to create a better future for individuals with autism.

Many on the board and on staff at Exceptional Minds had moved along the same trajectory of circumstances as their kids grew, solving problems as they arose and creating the autism practices, research and services that benefit so many others today. Board members have been involved in early autism intervention programs like Cure Autism Now; one is a former principal of the forerunner in special needs education, Frostig Center for Educational Therapy. Now, as their children and grandchildren living with autism – and thousands of others like them across the country -- move into the adult world with limited social services and few opportunities, they are solving the next looming issue in autism: jobs. An estimated 90 percent of individuals with autism are unemployed or underemployed.

Exceptional Minds is unique in that it prepares students with autism for careers through professional accreditation and real work experience in the digital arts industries. Robert’s son Lloyd will graduate Exceptional Minds in June, having achieved proficiency in at least six software programs considered to be the gold standard in the digital visual effects industry, including Adobe ACA certifications. He will go on to pursue a job or contract work through the Exceptional Minds Studio (EMS), an offshoot of Exceptional Minds digital arts academy established last year to provide post-production services by professionally certified young men and women who have high-functioning autism.

About EMS and Exceptional Minds ( Exceptional Minds is a non-profit vocational center and working production studio for young adults on the autism spectrum. 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. Operating separately and independently, the Exceptional Minds Studio (EMS) provides contract services in web design, animation, rotoscoping and visual effects cleanup on an as-need basis.
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