For the students at Exceptional Minds Studio in Sherman Oaks, mastering the art seems to be the easy part.
The real challenge is receiving the opportunity to display their art.
“The students understand a lot more than people think they understand,” said Exceptional Minds instructor Howie Hoffman. “A lot of it is just expressing it and getting it out.”
Exceptional Minds Studio is a vocational school for young to middle-aged autistic adults. Students are instructed in the fields of animation, visual effects and computer graphics, in hopes of transforming lives of low expectations into stories of success.
Ernie Merlan is program director at Exceptional Minds Studio, a position he stumbled upon just six months ago when a group of local mothers with autistic children had the idea to begin this nonprofit organization.
Merlan is also the founder of Merlan Creative Studio in North Hollywood, where he does animation, graphics and augmented reality. When that group of mothers came to inquire about renting a space in Merlan’s studio, the last thing he expected was to be asked to take over as the head of a new organization.
“I had never worked with autism before,” Merlan said. “But I met the kids and I loved their talent.”
Merlan agreed to take the position, diving head first into the everyday reality that is autism.
“Most people on the autism spectrum, by the time they reach 18, they fall off the grid,” Merlan said. “There is some government support for them but no real programs to help them do much.”
At Exceptional Minds Studio, students are given the opportunity to build their portfolios, as well as receive certification in the use of Adobe software, which qualifies them for entry-level jobs in the computer graphics and animation fields.
In addition, while enrolled at Exceptional Minds, students have the opportunity to work on several professional projects, such as the credits for the children’s movie Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer.
“When they leave here, not only will they have a portfolio to show people the kind of work they can do, they will already have credits from a few movies, and they’re going to have the knowledge of how to use all of these programs,” Merlan said.
In the Exceptional Minds program, students have 20-minute classes on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays where they learn the basics of specific computer programs. They then spend two weeks developing a project based on those particular lessons.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, students take in work from the outside, such as title work or the animation technique called rotoscoping, which they are paid for.
Currently, nine students are in the class. Tuition for each year is $30,000, of which students are asked to pay one-third. The rest is raised through donations.
Yudi Bennett, the director of administration for Exceptional Minds and one of the founding mothers, maintains that all children, regardless of learning disabilities, should have an opportunity to chase their dreams.
“What happens with kids with autism is they’re fairly well taken care of from preschool to grade 12, but then they graduate high school and there is nothing out there for them,” Bennett said.
Bennett said 90 percent of adults with autism are unemployed, and most live with their families their entire lives. Some qualify for Social Security, receiving between $600 and $800 a month beginning at age 18 and never get off of it.
“As a parent, that’s not the future you want for your kid,” Bennett said. “Typical kids get to live their dream and envision what they want to do. Growing up, I got to do that. Autistic kids don’t get to do that. When they do work, they are pretty much put into a mold.”
Autistic adults that do find work, Bennett said, usually end up with low-level jobs such as cleaning at fast food restaurants or at big chain stores.
“The public perception of people with autism is of limitations,” Bennett said. “What we need to do is show the public is with these kids, it’s not that they have limitations, it’s that they’re wildly creative and wildly imaginative. We need to get people to think outside the box.”
“There is a need for programs like this everywhere and in a lot of fields.”
Aside from the instruction offered to students in the Exceptional Minds program, students are also trained in social skills.
“Social skills are a big deal, especially within the autistic community,” Merlan said. “They’ve been bullied. They’ve been laughed at. They just never fit in. That’s something that we work at quite a bit, to help them get over that hump.”
Some of the students in the program have attended or graduated from local colleges. However, at those colleges they were not required to work on individual social skills and were not given adequate personal attention—considering the fact that they could go unnoticed in a classroom of 40 to 100 students, Merlan said.
At Exceptional Minds, students are required to shake hands, say good morning at the beginning of each day, and stand and speak to visitors.
Ironically, one student with asperger’s syndrome, Arielle Guthrie, said her improved social skills have, in some cases, backfired.
She has gotten so much better that her parents tend to forget about her syndrome, she said, and some of her friends have accused her of not actually having it.
“It’s hard having a learning disability,” said Guthrie, who is 25. “It causes a lot of tumultuous energy in my life because it’s like trying to reconcile with people that don’t see me as having any learning disability.”
Guthrie said Exceptional Minds has allowed her to escape that struggle.
“This place gives me a space to not think about that, and gives me an environment that’s set up to teach me and be nurturing to me,” Guthrie said.
Another Exceptional Minds student is Daniel Gott, 18, the son of former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Jim Gott.
“Exceptional Minds has been a great asset for me,” said Daniel, who helps run a petting farm and would like to be an actor someday. “I’ve had a lot of great experiences and met a lot of great friends.”
Gott, Guthrie and the other students have each designed and created several video games, Web series, and animated short movies during their time in the program.
“That’s one of the things that I’ve loved seeing,” Merlan said. “When a student that’s been locked in their room playing video games their entire life is able to walk in here, sit down at a computer and within 10 minutes of training, all of a sudden be doing something that’s truly creative and truly fantastic.”