Opportunity Knocks for Youth with Autism Who Attended Summer Workshops at Exceptional Minds

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Autism Speaks Baker Summer Camp Scholarship helps provide funding for disadvantaged youth who rode the bus four hours daily to attend an Exceptional Minds summer workshop. Exceptional Minds digital arts academy for youth with autism is known for its student work on movies such as "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes."

Exceptional Minds vocational school for young adults on the autism spectrum

I had been kind of lost up until now, but I think I can see myself doing digital editing.

A dinosaur in search of Starbucks and Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to The Moon” set to an orchestra of Star Wars characters were just a few of the animated adventures that took place at this summer’s Exceptional Minds digital arts workshop for youth with autism, which ended August 16.

Eighty-five young men and women ranging in age from 12 to 26 spent part of their summer at the vocational school for individuals with autism, learning new skills in digital animation, video game development and visual effects.

Among them was Xavier Romo of Alhambra, Calif., who became interested in the digital arts after meeting Exceptional Minds students and staff at a local autism awareness event in Los Angeles. “I went into Exceptional Minds thinking ‘I’m not an artist, so what am I going to do here?’ I ended up making a game that was really, really good and I realized I can do this,” says Xavier, who had been diagnosed with autism when he was seven and had attended college after high school but had yet to find a career suited to his unique skills and talents. Xavier’s tuition for the workshop was covered in part by an Autism Speaks Baker Summer Camp Scholarship, which seeks out community programs such as Exceptional Minds’ summer workshops each year for the purpose of providing the necessary funding and opportunities for disadvantaged youth on the spectrum.

Exceptional Minds offers a rigorous, three-year program for young adults with autism pursuing lifelong careers in visual effects, post-production and other fields in the digital arts. The vocational school is attended during the school year by young adults in their early to mid-20s, but is open during the summer months to younger youth or young adults with autism interested in exploring the digital arts for fun or as a possible career path.

In addition to qualifying for the Baker Summer Camp Scholarship program by Autism Speaks, Exceptional Minds received a grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in support of its summer workshops. “Without the support of Autism Speaks and the Academy and many others, we couldn’t begin to offer the kind of training and hope that these young people deserve,” says Exceptional Minds Program Director Ernie Merlán.

This is the third summer Exceptional Minds has been offering summer workshops for youth with autism. Adding to its two-week sessions this year was a workshop in After Effects Animation and another on Maya 3D tools, and more sessions overall. Exceptional Minds summer workshops started June 16 and ran through mid-August.

“I had been kind of lost up until now, but I think I can see myself doing digital editing," says Xavier, who rode the train two hours from Alhambra to Sherman Oaks and back again every day to attend the summer workshop. He hopes to eventually attend the full-time Exceptional Minds vocational program.

Exceptional Minds begins its fourth year as a vocational school for young adults on the autism spectrum, and will welcome 27 full-time students to its studio facility on September 8. The school started with nine students in 2011 and graduated its first class in June, all of whom entered the job market with professional certification in key software programs and industry experience -- including post-production work for major motion pictures "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," "American Hustle" and "Lawless."

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