Yudi Bennett was making a name for herself in Hollywood. As the assistant director on films like "Pleasantville" and "Honeymoon in Vegas," Bennett was on her way to a promising career in film. But then everything changed when her husband was diagnosed with cancer. When he died three years later, Bennett became the single mom of her 8-year-old son, Noah, who had been diagnosed with autism at age 3 and who had been mostly nonverbal throughout his childhood. Bennett realized she would need to decide between her career and her son's future. She chose Noah.
Like many kids with autism, Noah's prospects after high school were grim. A 2015 report by the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute found that young adults with autism had lower employment rates and higher rates of complete social isolation than people with other disabilities. The vast majority of people with autism, are un- or underemployed, meaning that if they do find work, it is way below their skill level and may contribute to a growing sense of depression that plagues many adults with the condition.
Bennett knew the statistics, but she was determined to help Noah find a path to success. And it came when Noah was in high school and a friend suggested that she enroll him in an after-school digital arts program.
“Within a month, Noah learned animation coding, started speaking and won age-appropriate awards for his work,” Bennett said in an interview with Parade.
Inspired by this success, Bennett gathered together the friends, collaborators and resources she would need to open Exceptional Minds, a nonprofit digital arts studio and training center for young adults with autism. Exceptional Minds actually wears two hats. Upstairs, it is a classroom, where autistic teens and adults get the training they need to flourish in visual effects careers. Downstairs, Exceptional Minds is a fully-operational studio where the center's graduates work on projects the studio has been hired to complete.
Thus far, the studio has worked on visual effects projects for such hits as "Ant-Man," "Avengers: Age of Ultron," "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2," "Game of Thrones," "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," "he SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip."
Depending upon the film, EM graduates may create the lengthy credit segments, which can last as long as 10 minutes. In others, they work on removing the markers, or red dots that were used to show actors where to stand during a scene. In "Game of Thrones," the techs at EM added fake snowflakes in post-production.
Post-production digital effects work is tedious and repetitive. And it requires the meticulous attention to detail that is characteristic of many young adults with autism.
The students at EM don't just learn tech skills. They also learn the life skills that will help them succeed in the workforce — skills like how to dress professionally, accept criticism, advocate for themselves, and even how to deliver the critical "elevator pitch," in which they need to eloquently and succinctly describe their work and skills to prospective employers and clients.
As for Bennett, she needn't have worried about choosing between her son and her career. Both are thriving thanks to Exceptional Minds. “What we’re doing here is groundbreaking,” she said. “We’re creating a model to apply to other vocations, from manufacturing and retail to music, to train and nurture young autistic adults into America’s workforce.”