by Debra Hosseini
Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending an Open House and student presentation at Exceptional Minds, a three-year vocational school in Sherman Oaks, California, which focuses on certifications in Adobe software for adults on the autism spectrum preparing them for careers in web design, video editing, graphic arts and animation.
Exceptional Minds has made a big impact in the autism community showing that sustainable programs that teach marketable skills are necessary for the growing number of autistic adults. According to a 2011 study, only 56 percent of young adults with autism in the U.S. graduated from high school, and only 14 percent started college. The employment of people with disabilities is very low and even lower for autistic people (Bureau of Labor statistics). Vocational programs, such as Exceptional Minds, will become more and more critical as the number of autistic students aging out of high school continues to grow.
Yudi Bennett, the operating director and co-founder, is a vivacious woman who is the mom of Noah Schneider, 18, autistic and a gifted animator. A Directors Guild of America Frank Capra Lifetime Achievement Award winner and a distinguished member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, Yudi has nurtured her child’s passion and at the same time created opportunities for many, assembling a powerhouse team of instructors including a passionate Program Director, Ernie Merlan.
Exceptional Minds currently has fifteen students. Ten more are enrolled in the program for the fall and their summer camps serve 70 – 80 additional students ages 15 and up who come from all over the United States to participate in this innovative program. Next year Yudi’s son Noah will be a full-time student.
At the Open House we were able to see the newly expanded facilities, which include classrooms with many computers loaded with state-of-the-art software.
I had a chance to chat with student Nicky Benoist’s parents, Gray and Wendy. Gray is a board member for Exceptional Minds. He stated that they searched for schools across the United States until finding Exceptional Minds.
“Exceptional Minds offered an opportunity unmatched by any other program–the ability for Nicky to pursue training for a career in computer animation that would utilize his visual strengths,” Gray stated.
They are happy that Nicky wakes up every morning looking forward to his day, working on his own projects and offering advice to his fellow students on theirs. Nicky has a natural gift for animation and he has produced a high quality animated short set to music that was recently submitted to a student animation festival.
Here is Nicky’s short “Cool Carla.”
On the big screen in the main room, we had the opportunity to view more student work. The student’s animation was clever eliciting laughter from the attendees.
A special treat for the students and audience was the appearance of celebrity Ed Asner who presented the students with their Adobe certifications. Adobe has been generous with the school gifting them software and allowing each student a home copy of Adobe Premier. Yudi stated that this year donations are close to 1 million dollars from its many individual and corporate sponsors.
Ron Burns, board member, in his presentation to the audience talked about the importance of integrated programming focusing not solely on job skills, but other skills – socialization, communication, and the ability to make presentations.
Exceptional Minds boasts a 95 percent success rate in Adobe certification in Photoshop and Flash, a computer animation program. Other students have certifications in Dreamweaver, a web design program. The test will be when the students graduate whether they will be able to enter the workplace and be successful.
Ron Burns addressed the corporate sponsors, “The kids will be interested in you [when they graduate] – are you going to be interested in them?”
Laura Robinson, 25, an instructor is on the spectrum herself. A recent graduate in animation from Loyola Marymount, Laura has had a passion for animation since she was twelve years old. At Exceptional Minds, Laura helps prepare lectures and attends meetings with the behaviorist.
“We had to alter some of our teaching methods to better suit autistic people,” she says. “We altered our lectures to have more Powerpoints to facilitate the visual learner. There are 15 students here and they are on 15 different places on the spectrum.”
On hand at the Open House was Matt Asner, the Los Angeles Director of Autism Speaks. Matt, the son of Ed Asner, has a child on the spectrum. Exceptional Minds received a 2012 Autism Speaks Family Services Community Grant.
With more than a half million youth on the spectrum expected to age out of the school system in the next ten years, more programs such as Exceptional Minds are critically needed.
To learn more or make a donation to Exceptional Minds (a 501c3 nonprofit), visit The Exceptional Minds website.
Other related Art of Autism blogs about innovative programming are below:
* a special thanks to Howie Hoffman for inviting me to this event.