In recent years, whole industries have awoken to the fact that there were untapped pools of neglected talent all around them, waiting to be cultivated and trained. We’ve seen major pushes to recruit more women and more people of color, long kept out by the artificial barrier of discrimination, and the perspectives and skills they’ve brought have helped transform movies, film and television for the better.
We recently spoke with David Siegel, CEO of Exceptional Minds, about his company’s efforts to help young adults with autism to develop their talents and find success in the fast-paced world of the digital arts. “I have the unique opportunity to lead a team who is dedicated to helping young adults with autism build their repertoire in the arts,” he told us, “and help them find careers in animation, digital arts, and visual effects, and of course tackle the challenges of career opportunities and employment in ways that they never dreamt were possible until we've opened up our opportunities to them and them to us. It's a great experience.”
This year marks the tenth anniversary of Exceptional Minds, and they’ve got many reasons to celebrate: their graduates have gone on to work on some of the last decade’s most important, highest-grossing films, including flagship Marvel franchises like Spider-Man, X-Men, and Captain America, not to mention hit television series like Game of Thrones, Loki and Black Sails.
Given how far they’ve come, it’s worth knowing where they started. Exceptional Minds was founded by a group of mothers whose children were on the spectrum. They were concerned that their sons and daughters would have fewer career opportunities and face a powerful stigma in the job market, falling off of what is known as the “services cliff,” when the support systems that are already in place for autistic children largely end when they turn 18, leaving them alone at a critical stage in their lives. David cited a telling statistic: over 80% of young adults with autism are unemployed or underemployed, a direct result of our failure to shepherd them past this initial hurdle.
Exceptional Minds addresses that need and helps young adults with autism make the leap into the job market, specifically in VFX, animation and post-production. They have students from 28 different states and four different countries, with a pedagogy designed to address the unique needs of students on the spectrum. The requirements for admission are simple: you have to be at least 18 years old, with a certificate of high school completion, an autism diagnosis, and a talent for and love of the arts.
One of the unique features of Exceptional Minds is their work readiness preparation and vocational training, which is something most young adults could benefit from but which especially helps prepare young adults with autism for the expectations of the job market. Every Monday, for all three years of the program, students at Exceptional Minds learn the essential intangible skills like professional demeanor and dress, comportment, resume building, interview skills (including how to properly shake someone’s hand and look them in the eye), and how to craft a killer demo reel to showcase their work to prospective employers.
David stressed the importance of these classes for young adults with autism: “It’s incredibly important for this group, who do need additional socialization support, additional behavior mitigation support. We have a team of behaviorists that help us with that; our teachers are well trained and well versed in how to manage conflict and how to work closely with our students.”
Okay, so that has Monday covered, but what about the other four days of the working week? These, David shared with us, are dedicated to intensive preparation in arts training, including animation, visual effects, motion graphics and 3D. “You are put through the paces on an introductory, intermediary and then advanced level,” he told us. The students’ passions then determine their course of study: “If you’re excited about visual effects, then we’ll start you on a track towards 3ds Max or Maya, and get you trained in those areas. By your third year, you’ll have decided that VFX is the path you want to go down, and by graduation you’ll have a resume and a reel, plus all the essential interview skills through which we coach our students.”
One of the unique features of Exceptional Minds is that they also have their own studio. Students who complete their three-year intensive course of study can pursue their dreams, applying for jobs all over the entertainment industry and beyond (graduates have worked for major studios like WarnerMedia and ViacomCBS, Disney and Marvel), or they can work in the EM studio, which is already an approved vendor for NBCUniversal, Warner Bros, Disney, Paramount, Pixomondo, Framestore, CO3 and MPC, to name just a few.
The Exceptional Minds studio was only created four years after the school, to help capture students who were falling through the career cracks, but its success has fueled its evolution. Today, it has dedicated studio teams, animation teams, VFX teams, and more recently, a dedicated gaming team, working in Unreal Engine and 3D editing.
One thing David wishes to stress is that while Exceptional Minds is a nonprofit and survives on the generosity of its donors, training and hiring artists on the autism spectrum, isn’t about ticking a box. These are highly competent artists with their own work-ready skills. “I think it’s very important to note that a lot of our artists are incredibly focused and highly detail-oriented, and those attributes are highly valued by employers who demand excellence from their teams.” The VFX business, David is quick to point out, is extremely competitive, and studios that can’t deliver or artists that can’t produce are quickly passed over. The continued success of Exceptional Minds, both as a studio and as a cultivator of talent, proves that they’re doing something right. “The pipeline we’re building between each studio and Exceptional Minds is allowing them to access a broader employment pool of capable, hard-working people they didn’t realize they had access to. And by the way, we’re bringing them great storytellers and innovators, with new ways of thinking and approaching problems.”
But it isn’t a one-way street, with Exceptional Minds only forming capable future artists; the companies, too, have to adapt, and part of the mission of Exceptional Minds is to help them adjust their approach to get the most out of their workers with autism. “We go into our vendors and studio partners and do what we call employer education, debunking some of the myths and misconceptions around autism. In our experience, it’s mostly about communication. Oftentimes, you’ll discover that if you just get to know the person and understand where they’re coming from, it becomes much easier to work with them, and that goes for neurotypical and neurodivergent people.” David points to the success of the graduates of Exceptional Minds at places like Marvel and Nickelodeon, and the ripple effect it causes: “Once people see that Marvel has this successful group of neurodivergent artists, creating and thriving within their studios, and delivering a great product, it leads other studios to pursue our graduates.” The same is true of the Exceptional Minds Studio, which David points out has a great track record: “More than 50% of the vendors we’ve ever worked with have returned for more work, which means that we are consistently delivering and meeting deadlines and budgets. Initially, these studios might have thought they were taking a risk, but now we’re just another viable vendor option, and I think that’s extremely important.”
If you’re on the spectrum or otherwise neurodivergent, David has this advice for you (apart from looking to join Exceptional Minds): “You’ve got to be radically persistent in a respectful and non-intrusive way. You’ve got to continue to put yourself out there and be bold in pursuing your dreams.”
Thanks to Exceptional Minds and the dedication of people like David, we’re witnessing a massive expansion in the talent pool, together with an influx of new ideas and innovative approaches to old problems.