“Presumption of competence.”
This is the catchphrase and underlying philosophy of the work that Benjamin Maixner does as director of programs at Exceptional Minds, a not-for-profit professional training academy and studio designed to prepare individuals on the autism spectrum for careers in the digital arts.
Founded in 2012 and with its first class graduating in 2014, the Los Angeles-based school was designed to meet the needs of individuals with autism who possessed raw artistic talent but lacked a suitable educational environment in which to nurture those skills. The three-year program runs five days a week, with one day dedicated to vocational and social-skills training, and attracts students from all across the United States, most of whom are in their 20s. Right now the classes are held remotely. (Exceptional Minds also offers a summer digital arts program for children with autism.) Also in 2014, the Exceptional Minds Studio, an extension of the school, was established to put graduates of the program to work within the entertainment community.
Since then, Exceptional Minds alumni have been hired to do visual effects for TV series such as ABC’s “The Good Doctor” and HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and tentpole superhero movies including Marvel Studios’ “Ant-Man,” “Captain America: Civil War” and “Black Panther.”
“What is so amazing about our program is that not only are we bringing together these individuals and their creative passion, but we are giving them agency,” Maixner says. “We are arming them to go compete in one of the most competitive industries on the planet.”
According to stats published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn., 3.5 million Americans are diagnosed with the disorder. Autism Speaks estimates that the rate of unemployment for college-educated adults with the disorder is 85%, a staggering statistic considering the spike in rates of ASD diagnosis. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 54 children is diagnosed with ASD, and boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with the disorder. Twenty-six percent of adults with autism experience clinical depression. Individuals with autism also suffer from anxiety, ADHD and various other health issues, making securing full-time work in a society that generally shuns those with disabilities a seemingly insurmountable challenge.
For these reasons, Kat Cutright, academic dean of Exceptional Minds, points to the importance of the school as a bedrock for helping its students achieve professional and personal success. Exceptional Minds also helps foster camaraderie among its students, as those with ASD often struggle to forge friendships in mainstream society. In a world in which individuals with autism have difficulty holding down blue-collar jobs working in grocery stores and retail department stores — one graduate of the school “went from stocking groceries to working at Stargate Studios,” she says — Exceptional Minds plays to their core artistic and technical strengths.
“Our students who come into our full-time program and our part-time programs are really passionate about movies and animation, not just as consumers but as people with a creative vision. I think some of the big success stories that I’ve seen is our students actually finding their voice and a way to express themselves, and hopefully to become a part of the cultural production machine that is Hollywood. In our animation studio and in our VFX studio, they get that hands-on experience so that they can build their resume. Because it takes credits to get more credits, and we hope that they will go out and be able to compete and land jobs just like anybody else.”
The curriculum at Exceptional Minds includes courses in Photoshop, motion graphics, VFX and 3D animation. Graduates have gone on to work for Marvel, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon.
Annie Leffe, a 2018 graduate of Exceptional Minds, is now an artist in its visual-effects apprenticeship program. She’s worked on such blockbusters as “Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and DC Comics’ “Birds of Prey.” Even when she’s “off duty,” she continues to spend time at the Exceptional Minds Studio.
“I’m practicing to keep my skills sharp so I won’t lose any of them,” Leffe says. “I want to be prepared for whatever shot comes my way — paid or not.”
Craig Hills, a native Alaskan and third-year student, enrolled at Exceptional Minds to study animation.
“I dream one day of working for one of the big studios, doing not just animation, but also storyboarding and perhaps some design work,” he says. “I feel like this school has taught me more than I ever knew before.”
Animation and visual-effects artist David Miles, a 2015 alumnus of the program, says: “Before I found out about Exceptional Minds, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life.
“I always knew I wanted to do animation, I always wanted to work in the film industry, but I always figured that’s something that people with connections and more talent than I’ve got did,” he continues. “I grew up thinking that people with careers in film and animation were extraordinarily gifted. And I didn’t believe that I was. The people at Exceptional Minds helped me realize that I do have those talents, I do have the ability to break into this very highly competitive, highly desired industry.”
For many of its students, Exceptional Minds is the first experience they’ve had in which an instructor or teacher has told them they have talent and do something productive with their lives. It’s their first time being told they are worthy.
“When people come in here, and I want to be very careful about how I say this, but they’re frequently coming in wounded by our educational system,” Maixner says. “At Exceptional Minds, we have a very rigorous and intense training program. We need to get these students excited about learning and about evaluation and feedback. Grades for them can be really punishing and marginalizing, so we developed our own novel systems of assessment. Instead of grades, it’s a snapshot, so to speak, of where you are right now.”
Students learn not only that they have the ability to become self-sufficient members of society but that they can leave a lasting impact on pop culture through their artistic contributions to the entertainment biz, be it in film, TV or video games.
“There are other vocational training programs out there for individuals with autism, but they tend to teach low-level, kind of menial work, and that’s usually marginalizing,” he says. “At Exceptional Minds, it’s that presumption of competence that is the inspiring aspect. It’s not just about putting people in a workshop together, sheltered. We don’t just want you to get a job for some fixed period of time. We want you to have a career.
And that’s a big difference. Because folding pizza boxes, for example, can be valuable work. If you love it, I don’t want to knock it. But it’s very different than making art. At Exceptional Minds, we’re really looking to maximize students’ potential rather than pushing them to the fringe.”