Exceptional Minds, an LA-based school that teaches young adults with autism how to create visual effects, motion graphics and other digital arts, has announced that the Class of 2020 has graduated after finishing courses remotely.
The graduation was a Zoom event attended by parents and friends, among them guest speaker Rob Paulsen, best known as the voice of Yakko in Animaniacs and Pinky from Pinky and the Brain. “People will look at Exceptional Minds as pioneers and they will be inspired by it, and that inspiration will help them find their own gifts,” he said.
When COVID-19 hit, hit, Exceptional Minds shut down its school and sent its students home. Overnight, its entire training model — the place where students met; the way instructors taught, socialized and interacted with this special population; and the lifeblood of what Exceptional Minds does and how it does it, right down to funding — was gone. And as anyone with a child, sibling or friend with autism knows, sudden change is a huge challenge.
No one was entirely sure if they could replicate this model in a remote, virtual environment, for a population that was already isolated and challenged in so many other ways. Remote learning carried Exceptional Minds 2020 graduates through the last critical months of their three-year training, not an easy feat for those on the autism spectrum.
According to Exceptional Minds’ Dee McVicker, what took the most time was figuring out how to format the classes. “We closed the school just as the rest of Los Angeles closed down. Our instructors spent a week working out the details of remote learning, and we were online with our students the following week. That was really quite amazing considering we are working with many in our population who do best with one-on-one learning. One thing our instructors decided right away is that instead of sending students home with homework and checking online from time to time, they would conduct their classes online in an all-day format. Our instructors also tried to instill a sense of community that is so important to any group of students, and especially students on the spectrum. We conducted Dungeons and Dragons games online, had movie nights (remotely) and did as much as we could online to keep those relationships engaged with us and each other.
“It was a wonderful way to develop an online program,” she says, “even if it was done quickly, and to learn about what works and doesn’t work online with our student population. As we move into summer, we are able to extend those learnings to our summer workshops. And going forward, we will be able to provide more of a hybrid approach to training our students, so we are no longer tied to the classroom as before.”
“From COVID-19 to Protest 2020, we have faced challenges the likes of which most of us have never seen before. But as we are learning, challenges test us in unexpected ways, and you all have demonstrated incredible flexibility and resilience in this new remote learning space that will serve you so well as you continue on an amazing journey that has just begun,” said Exceptional Minds executive director David Siegel to the class of 12 during Friday’s Zoom graduation.
For those who aren’t familiar with Exceptional Minds, the organization opened its doors in 2011 as a training school for individuals with autism and, in 2014, added a professional studio to bring in contract work for graduates of its three-year program.
Exceptional Minds 2020 graduates join alumni who have gone on to careers at Marvel Studios and Cartoon Network, worked on Oscar-nominated movies and produced animations for Sesame Street, among others. Exceptional Minds academy and working studio’s mission is to create opportunities for individuals with autism, with a new online summer program to help ensure the learning continues.