In The Politics of Autism, I discuss the employment of adults with autism and other developmental disabilities. Many posts have discussed programs to provide them with training and experience.
In 2009, a group of about 10 parents in Sherman Oaks raised $250,000, bought nine computers, hired four teachers and started an animation/vocational school for their autistic children.
The original idea was to create a training program for autistic students after high school, since many couldn’t function in typical college settings. People on the autism spectrum often have difficulties with communication, problem-solving, recognizing social cues and time management – all challenges for college and workplace settings.
There were nine students, but the program, called “Exceptional Minds,” had no director.
The parents arranged a meeting with Ernie Merlan, a long-time animator, muralist and imagineer who had worked on Hollywood movies and Disneyland attractions such as the Indiana Jones Adventure and Toontown. They told him they wanted to rent space at Merlan Creative for their new school.
That story was a lie. They didn’t want office space, they wanted him.
Exceptional Minds now has 32 full-time students – local ones from areas such as Venice, Chino Hills and Grand Terrace, and several from out of state (an incoming student is from Alaska) – and 50 part-timers. It has deals with HBO, Sony, Fox and other studios.
“Hollywood isn’t altruistic,” Merlan said. “They’re going to try us out once. We had better be good.”
So far, it has been very good.
“(Hollywood) keeps coming back for more,” Merlan said.
Here’s the best thing about this program: Other businesses are starting to be inspired.
There’s an adult school in Glendale called “Uniquely Abled Academy,” and one in Santa Monica called “MindSpark.” Both work with autistic adults, and both were inspired by Exceptional Minds.
Merlan said Exceptional Minds has a formula that can be easily followed.
“We’re assuming all of our students are superheroes,” Merlan said. “They live in an alternative universe, and that’s what we’re creating. The key is to build on what they’re interested in.”