About a year ago, I was invited by Susan Zwerman, a visual effects producer, PGA member and a DGA Frank Capra Achievement Award recipient, to come and visit Exceptional Minds, a school and studio dedicated to teaching visual effects and animation to young adults on the autism spectrum. As an activist for the employment and depiction of people with disabilities in media, I jumped at the opportunity.
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences. The term "spectrum" reflects the wide variation in challenges and strengths found among the autistic population. The Center for Disease Control estimates autism's prevalence as 1 in 68 children in the United States alone, including 1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls.
I met Zwerman at the school's boardroom where she shared the history and mission of Exceptional Minds. As I was guided from room to room and felt the amazing pride the students, artists and staff took in the work they were doing, I was blown away. I got to watch clips of finished work for big-budget Hollywood films and TV series such as Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Spider Man: Homecoming, Game of Thrones, and Prison Break being done by young adults on the autism spectrum. Sensing my wonder, Zwerman explained that a laser-like focus comes in handy when you need to adjust individual frames of a movie. "They're really into details," she tells me. "They zoom in, and they really want to fix it to the nth degree." I wanted to know more.
Based in Sherman Oaks, Exceptional Minds is the world's only vocational school and studio that gives people on the autism spectrum an opportunity to learn animation and visual effects and work on a range of post-production jobs from rotoscoping, to green screen work, to 2D animation.
"If you want to know what's on their minds, just look at their computer screens" says technical director Josh Dagg, who has supervised student artists' work for feature films like the Golden Globe winner American Hustle.
The training program lasts three years and is taught by instructors and teachers who work in the industry and who have received training from behaviorists on staff in working with people with autism. Once the students graduate, they are eligible to join the studio and start earning a paycheck. Exceptional Minds also tries, whenever possible, to place those graduates who demonstrate the desire and ability to succeed as full-time employees into major post-production positions at Hollywood companies such as Marvel Studios.
Tony Saturno, a 2017 graduate of Exceptional Minds, has worked on The Good Doctor, Avengers: Infinity War and Black Panther. He says he became interested in learning about visual effects after watching the first Iron Man. "I came from Maryland just to attend Exceptional Minds," he shares. "Just that has given me a great deal of independence."
Exceptional Minds was born out of a sense of necessity. A group of parents with kids on the autism spectrum wanted to see their children grow up to be independent and active members of society. But as they looked around for their children's futures, the stats were abysmal: 90% of adults with autism were and are unemployed or under-employed and an estimated 50,000 teens with autism become adults and lose school-based autism services each year.
Yudi Bennett was one of those parents. She was a successful assistant director having to face raising her son Noah, who is on the autism spectrum, alone after her husband passed away. Thinking back on how well Noah had done in an after-school digital program, Bennett started to conceive of what a school that would teach animation and special effects to young people on the autism spectrum would look like. Exceptional Minds was launched in 2011 with nine students, software donated by Adobe and a fierce belief that as a society we can do better to create opportunity for others who are different.
"I have seen how diversity of thought may be the most meaningful form of diversity that our society needs to recognize and foster and include," notes PGA East Chair William Horberg, whose own child is on the autism spectrum. "There is a growing population whose minds are wired and think differently, and who have meaningful contributions to make to society and to our industry."
Once the school was up and running, it became clear that it wasn't enough for these young adults simply to learn skills and occupy themselves. A job, and the attendant sense of responsibility and accomplishment, had to be the next step for Exceptional Minds. Bennett convinced her best friend, Susan Zwerman, to leave her successful career in VFX and help set up the studio. For Zwerman, it was a no-brainer. She had watched Noah grow up and felt committed to giving him and others like him a chance.
Zwerman accepted the challenge and took on the task of producing, scheduling and budgeting work to come into the studio. "For me, personally," she says, "this has been a spiritual journey. I have had such a good career in the industry, and this is my way of giving back."
Zwerman used her industry connections to get the studios to come and see the work that was being done at Exceptional Minds. Fox was the first to sign up, followed by Marvel Studios. Today the program has become so popular that they now have three potential students vying for every single spot in the school. People travel from as far as South America and Asia to come learn. Their summer session draws about 160 students for two-week classes.
"Yudi Bennett is a pioneer and a hero," says Horberg, "for the work she does at Exceptional Minds to create awareness and opportunities for employment in media for these young people. I wish there were a thousand more like her!"
Unfortunately, there aren't. As we reassess the nature of equality in employment and the portrayal of minority groups in the entertainment industry, people with disabilities-who today make up the largest minority in the country-are often left out of the conversation.
Janet Grillo, Chair of the Education Committee for PGA East, is on point, observing, "Children with autism become adults with lifelong challenges, as well as aptitudes which are uniquely suited to aspects of our industry."
So why can't we fight for the inclusion of people with disabilities and offer best practices with the same fervor we are now doing for women, people of color and LGBQT?
The answers vary, but in truth, they don't matter anywhere near as much as the simple recognition of the value that people with disabilities bring to the fabric of our society and the contributions they can make.
John V. Chapman, the father of an Exceptional Minds student, poignantly states, "For the first time in our 22 years with Christopher, we have found a place where people care deeply about him and understand his plight, where people believe in his abilities and can help our beautiful son do more with life than bag groceries at Vons or stock shelves at Sears."
As a society we have moral responsibilities. As artists we must reflect our society. And as an industry, we have the opportunity to tap into a market with $200 billion in buying power.
People with disabilities want to be productive members of our society. Our community must step up and support programs like Exceptional Minds that teach, employ and serve as a bridge for this unique group.
"As working producers," observes Grillo, "we have the chance to create opportunity, by telling stories by, about and with people on the spectrum-and by offering them a place on our sets,iourproduction houses, in our community and in our hearts."