Alex Knight was diagnosed with autism when he hit school age in North Hollywood. His parents kept up hope, but his future didn’t include many options, or many dreams.
“If he was a happy plumber, that’s all we were asking for,” Jeff Knight said about his son. “How is he going to navigate the world?”
Alex is now 27, and he works in television post-production on shows like “Empire,” “Bones,” “Last Man on Earth,” “Frequency” and “Rosewood.” He is part of a small movement in Hollywood, where studios have been hiring autistic adults to work in animation, visual effects and video editing. In the last year, autistic collaborators from the small school Alex attended have been among the nominees for an Academy Award and a Daytime Emmy.
“This,” Jeff Knight said, “is the other side of the tunnel.”
What happened to Alex?
Exceptional Minds happened.
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.
Merlan had been a Cub Scout leader for one of their autistic children, and the parents believed he had the right temperament to direct their program.
“He has the heart and soul and passion for this,” said Yudi Bennett, who was one of those parents, a longtime assistant director in Hollywood and is now on the staff at Exceptional Minds.
At first, Merlan agreed to be a part-time director, but that didn’t last. Exceptional Minds quickly became his full-time job.
“I walked into that schoolhouse,” Merlan remembered, “and the students wouldn’t look me in the eye. They wouldn’t shake my hand. … But they could draw.”
Many of the students had anti-social behavior. They were awkward and even rude at times.
In Merlan’s first two weeks on the job, a student picked up a metal chair and came dangerously close to clocking a teacher.
Merlan took the student aside and berated him like a boss would berate an employee – complete with colorful language. He told the student, in so many words, that he was about to be kicked out of the program. He would need to earn his way back, which he did.
“We didn’t have another problem with him,” Merlan said. “Many of these kids are pampered for too long. I don’t treat people like invalids. I treat people like that can do it. I hold them accountable.”
Merlan quickly hired behaviorists and psychologists to work at the school, which is a three-year program. He also created a work environment based on five tenets – appearance, attitude, organization, problem-solving and conflict resolution.
He also pulls no punches. “You really smell,” is a phrase he’ll use, without remorse, if he passes a student in the hallway who hasn’t bathed. He’s not trying to be cruel; he’s trying to help them become adults.
“I’ve heard parents call these kids ‘Sweetie,’” Merlan said. “We can’t treat them like Sweetie anymore.”
Movie studios send scenes to Exceptional Minds from their films that need changes – a car needs to be a different color, an actor needs a pimple removed from his face, power lines need to be removed from the background. Students work on computers to clean up those mistakes.
Companies also use Exceptional Minds animators for cartoons and graphics.
Obsessive attention to detail is the skill that attracts Hollywood to autistic students.
Students like Alex Knight.
For a long time, Alex didn’t fit in at Exceptional Minds.
In those early days, the school was built for animators. Alex wanted to be a film editor. He was considering leaving Exceptional Minds.
So Merlan started a curriculum in film editing, customized for Alex.
When Alex completed the editing program, Exceptional Minds set up an interview with New Edit, a Burbank television production company. It didn’t start well. Alex was a bit awkward. Then, someone mentioned baseball, and Alex lit up. He knows endless baseball trivia. Suddenly, the New Edit people were laughing and exchanging trivia answers with Alex.
New Edit hired Alex, and now he’s one of 25 Exceptional Minds graduates working in Hollywood. He works creating copies of scenes as backups in case television companies lose their originals.
Alex works with people who aren’t on the autism spectrum. He’s not less competent; he’s just different.
“He’s a little slower,” said Alex’s boss, Chris Ackerman. “He takes more time. He doesn’t make as many mistakes.”
Alex listens to heavy metal music while he’s working. And he talks a lot about baseball. Alex has become one of the more popular employees at New Edit. He makes more than minimum wage, and the goal is for him to get a roommate and move out of his father’s house soon.
Asked where he might go in his career, Alex looks confused, as if to say why would he go anywhere else?
“I want to work here for a long time.”
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.”