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Exceptional Minds: The Creative Power of Young Adults with Autism

For young people identified as on the autism spectrum, growing into adulthood can have its own challenges. But students at the non-profit educational program Exceptional Minds prove that autism can also mean special talents.

Madeline Petti is an example of how Exceptional Minds helps students with autism seek and reach their full potential.

“I want the world to know that I like designing things and Exceptional Minds is a place where you can go and you will be accepted and you will learn things and it’s awesome.”

Madeline Petti is part of a new wave of up and coming digital effects artists. She is a young, very talented student who has autism spectrum disorder (ASD). She is learning all about the entertainment industry with Exceptional Minds, a visual effects animation studio in Hollywood, California. Exceptional Minds provides vocational training for young adults with autism.

Madeline has played video games since 4th grade. She has also always loved watching animated shows. But, Madeline says she had a hard time learning in traditional settings.

“I had kind of a difficult time. I get bored really easily when, like, all I’m doing is sitting there and people are talking at me and I’m not really personally invested in the material and when you are not really personally invested you, well really have to force yourself to stay in the moment and pay attention and well if you don’t have the motivation to force yourself you are pretty much kind of go off into your own personal La La Land.”

Exceptional Minds provided the right kind of learning environment for Madeline. More action, less talking.

“I like coming here because it’s so hands on. We are doing so many different things like in a normal classroom you just kind of sit there and they lecture at you and you get more and more bored because all you are doing is sitting there and listening. Whereas here it’s a lot more hands on like we get shown examples or we will follow along with the directions. It’s I guess we are doing more. I’m second year so I am learning a lot of editing and visual effects I know how to make a light saber. First year we learned animation and photo shop. Photoshop is pretty cool actually. We do a lot of really neat text effects.”

Ernie Merlan is EM program director.

“The heart of our program is a full time three year vocational program where they learn to do visual effects and animation and title work specifically for the entertainment industry. The program would teach them not only the technical skills that they needed but the work readiness skills that they needed in order to get a job. So we focus on how they look and what their attitude is and organizing themselves and problem solving on their own and then work place conflict which is something I think we all have but learning how to deal with it is a little tough. We also have part time programs and we have a summer program for younger kids that kind of get them indoctrinated into the kinds of things that we are doing here.”

Exceptional Minds

Exceptional Minds

Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability marked by repetitive behaviors and social problems. It affects one in 68 American children. Autism is considered a spectrum condition because its effects can differ widely from person to person. But, like with other disabilities, ASD can make it difficult for a person to find success in work and social experiences.

For Ernie Merlan, working at Exceptional Minds permits him to do something that is part of his life purpose… people.

“I love coming in and talking to the students and sometimes when you’re the director of a program… you don’t have that much of an opportunity to talk to students, but when I come in here and Madeline shows me something she’s working on or one of the students has a problem that is a pretty important problem to him, but I’m able to get him through it…that makes my day. Knowing that these guys are going to make something of their lives and that they are going to be able to show the world who they really are that’s what it is all about.”

Tony Saturno is another student at Exceptional Minds. He earned an Art and Animation certificate at a community college in his home state of Maryland. But, he says the instruction at Exceptional Minds has taught him much more.

"I feel like I've learned a lot of new things here at Exceptional Minds. I've learned some new technical things that go into movies or tv shows whether its live action or animated, but also just story telling in general."

It is costly to run a program like Exceptional Minds. Most families can only pay partial tuition. The program provides financial assistance to every student at the school.

Some students find jobs immediately after finishing the three year Exceptional Minds program. Other students work first at the Exceptional Minds studio. There, students gain connections to Hollywood’s major entertainment studios, like Marvel, Fox and Sony. They get to work on movies and television.

Ernie Merlan says the exacting, creative nature of animation seems to fit for some people with ASD. But, he hopes that Exceptional Minds can serve as a model program for teaching other vocations to those on the spectrum.

“Our dream is that we can show other people how to do what we’re doing. That they can in their own towns can figure out ways that these individuals can be useful to the town to the local industry and have them be a part of society.”

One thing is certain for Madeline Petti, Exceptional Minds has helped to change her outlook on life.

“I don’t want to say my life would have been bleak or something without it but I do think that at Exceptional Minds I have a lot more opportunities than I did before. Like I would have made my way but it wouldn’t have been as good.

Ernie Merlan says the program changed him as well.

“I am so excited to come into work every day that I don’t have the same kind of stress or worries that I had before. I know that I am making a difference and so that changes my attitude about work.”

That’s Exceptional Minds: ‘changing lives…one frame at a time.’

I’m Marsha James.

Marsha James wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

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Words In This Story

autism spectrum disorder - n. a developmental disability marked by repetitive behaviors and social problems

vocational adj. – relating to the special skills, training, etc that you need for a particular job

anime n. a style of animation that was created in Japan that uses colorful images, strong characters and stories that have a lot of action

lecture v. – to give a talk to a group of people to teach them about something

indoctrinate v. to teach someone to fully accept the ideas, opinions and beliefs of a particular group

tuition - n. money that is paid to a school for the right to study there

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