Graduates on autism spectrum tap into passion

What happens when the school bus stops coming for the one in 68 kids diagnosed with autism? The answer could be as simple as developing their interests, as friends and family witnessed when seven exceptional individuals with autism graduated from Exceptional Minds on Sunday to pursue careers in visual effects and digital animation. 

“Your passion and your skills are what brought you into the true mainstream of society today,” said Dr. Ricki Robinson, a well-known author and leading autism expert during her commencement speech to the Exceptional Minds graduating class of 2015. “You have become a model and example for our society,” she added. 

Graduates Nicky Benoist, Lauren Kato, Shane McKaskle, David Miles, Jeremy Pollock, Erik Prothero, and Mason Taylor graduated from the vocational school for young adults with autism on Sunday and start their careers in visual effects and related fields on Monday. “Thank you to Exceptional Minds for giving me the skills necessary to do this, to start off my career,” said Nicky Benoist, who will begin his career immediately following graduation as a visual effects artist at Mr. Wolf, a small visual effects studio for television and film located in Culver City, Calif.  Nicky accepted a full time position with the studio after interning there over the past several months as assistant to the creative director providing commercial effects, titles, graphic design and TV episodic/reality show work.

In a comment earlier, Mike Pryor with Mr. Wolf spoke of Nicky and his successes so far. “He’s been doing great – we have yet to throw him something he can’t handle and he absorbs new info/tools like a sponge. He’s been really good for everyone,” said Pryor.

Like the five other young men and one young woman that make up the Exceptional Minds Class of 2015, Nicky completed Exceptional Minds’ comprehensive three-year program with professional certifications in the key software applications used for roto, compositing and other visual effects production. The seven also graduated the school with hands-on experience in the visual arts, including live-action CG integration, 3D animation, story development, and marker tracking removal and compositing.

The school is a nonprofit organization funded privately through tuition, foundations and grants. Preceding graduation on Sunday, the school and its students honored the Julia Stearns Dockweiler Charitable Foundation with the “Exceptional Hero Award” for its donation of computers and tuition assistance for students in need.  “Four-and-a-half years ago a small group of parents saw a need and envisioned a solution. We believe our young adults with autism can lead productive lives and follow their dreams. Today, we have a growing school, a fantastic staff, and a successful studio, thanks to the support of many individuals and foundations in this room. This afternoon we’d like to pay tribute to one, the Julia Stearns Dockweiler Charitable Foundation which has given us tremendous support over the past three years,” said Exceptional Minds Director of Operations Yudi Bennett, who presented the Exceptional Hero Award to Quinn Brady and Sean Crahan, trustees for the Julia Stearns Dockweiler Charitable Foundation. “Several of our students graduating today have benefited from their generosity as will incoming students in the fall,” added Bennett.

“This means a great deal to all of us. Thank you very, very much,” said Quinn Brady, who accepted the award on behalf of the foundation’s five trustees. 

Exceptional Minds opened in 2011 with a first-year class of nine students and now has 27 fulltime students, 40 part time students and 150 summer enrollment students. Exceptional Minds’ graduating class of 2015 follows in the footsteps of the school’s first graduating class of 2014 as the first wave of young adults with autism to enter the workforce.

More than a half-million individuals with autism will enter adulthood in the next decade, the vast majority of whom are ill prepared for meaningful employment. The school is the first and only school of its kind to prepare young people with autism for careers in visual effects, providing well-rounded instruction in soft skills and technical skills as well as job placement and work environment preparedness.

Sunday’s graduation marks the start of employment for all seven. Exceptional Minds graduates can work by the project in the Exceptional Minds Studio (EMS) co-located with the school. Soon to move into a new 1,100 square foot studio in the same building as Exceptional Minds, EMS operates independently of the vocational school to provide high quality stereo conversion (rotoscoping), visual effects, computer graphics, title work, and animation in demand by the industry. 

The Exceptional Minds class of 2014 has gone on to provide visual effects skills in roto and cleanup, green screen keying, simple compositing, object removal, tracking mark removal, and end credit work for a dozen movies and/or projects, including  “American Hustle,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” and more recently, “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”

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.