Staring at his screen, Dakota Jordan adds the last touches to the cartoon he has been working on assiduously for weeks. “When I am creating, it is as if I suddenly have the world in my hands. It is a feeling of absolute freedom!” explains this young man, an autistic graphic artist and film fan, who one year ago joined Exceptional Minds, the Californian school of digital animation and special effects.
Based in Sherman Oaks, a few kilometres from the biggest studios in Los Angeles, the school trains talented young people on the autism spectrum who dream of working in Hollywood and who are now more and more sought after by the film industry.
While every case of autism is unique, many autistic people are known to have particular skills that are of great interest to the studios: incredible attention to detail, an enormous capacity for concentration, a desire for repetitive tasks and a high level of creativity.
Founded seven years ago, Exceptional Minds now has its own animation and visuel effects studio where some of the school’s young graduates work. They are regularly called on to collaborate with the giants of the films industry: from Nickelodeon to HBO, as well as Sony, Netflix and the Marvel Studios, a division of Disney.
“Some of these companies are particularly keen to get us to work on their visuel effects,” explains Jennifer Giandalone, the studio coordinator. “For example, our team has the job of re-working their images, painstakingly removing tiny, undesirable details from the screen, such as some unflattering frizzy curls from the head of an actor, or mountains in the background.” Such details can take hours of work and unwavering attention.
“Our young graduates are sought after by the industry’s giants to work on major projects, which is rare for those starting out in the film industry,” says the school’s director, Ernie Merlán, proudly. Recently, the Exceptional Minds team has worked on some American block-busters such as the film Solo, the last Star Wars spin-off, and on Black Panther.
The film industry is not the only one to take an interest in autistic workers in California. Silicon Valley was one of the first to consider their potential, a few years ago. In 2015 computing giant Microsoft even created a recruitment programme entirely dedicated to autistic people. Instead of subjecting them to the traditional job interviews, where they are disadvantaged because of their communication difficulties, the company invited them to come and spend several weeks demonstrating their talents and technical skills within its teams.
“We realised that there were a lot of studies that showed we were overlooking…certain talents by not hiring more autistic people at Microsoft,” explained the creator of the new recruitment programme Jenny Lay-Flurrie, speaking on American television recently.
86 per cent of autistic adults in America are out of work
Microsoft’s highly publicised example has been emulated in the tech and finance industries. Big corporations such as J.P. Morgan, Ernst & Young, IBM and Bloomberg have been inspired by the computer giant’s initiative. But it is still very limited: only about 50 autistic people are currently employed full-time by Microsoft, since the specialised recruitment programme was set up.
At the moment, only 14 per cent of autistic adults in America of working age have a paid job, according to National Autism Indicators Report, a study published in 2017 by the Autism Institute of Drexel University in Philadelphia.
“There is no law in the United States that imposes a quota system in private companies,” explains Merlán. “In an industry as flexible as the film industry, everything moves very fast, I think it would be complicated to put one in place. In my view, we can only really rely on the awareness of companies for things to continue to move in the right direction and for society to finally understand that it has everything to gain.”
There are, on the other hand, several laws that protect the pay of autistic workers, once they have joined the labour market: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), adopted in 1990, for private sector employees and local government, and the 1973 Rehabilitation Act for Federal Government employees. In addition to protecting employees against potential discrimination at work, these laws guarantee the right to special arrangements depending on their disability: teleworking, flexible working hours, or additional sick leave. These must however always be arranged in consultation with the employer, who can reject the request on logistic or financial grounds or propose alternative solutions.
Improving companies’ awareness of the needs of their autistic workers
For their rights to be understood, though, the workers’ concerned must know of their existence and above all must be capable of asserting them by negotiating with their employer.
“Some autistic employees still don’t know they have the right to ask for special arrangements, because many of them have very little experience of the labour market,” says Mellissa Toler, the director for interpersonal skills at Coding Autism, a new computer technology training centre for autistic people, in Los Angeles.
“You can get a lot within a company through negotiation. But social skills don’t come naturally at all to people with autism. They can find it very difficult to pick up on nuances or non-verbal signals such as a shrug or a frown, and that can lead to conflict in the workplace,” she explains.
“At the training centre, in addition to technical training, we help the future coders improve their inter-personal skills, thanks to practical exercises adapted for each individual.”
“Of course, companies also have to make an effort,” adds Oliver Thornton, the founder of Coding Autism and autistic himself. “Our aim, in due course, is to provide training on autism to the partner companies we work with, who want to recruit some of our talent, so that they learn how to adapt to the needs of their new employees”.
Exceptional Minds has already set up a programme of this kind. “When a studio hires one of our graduates, we offer training so that the team become familiar with what autism is and with the particular needs of the new employee, because each autistic person is unique,” says Merlán. “We have found that the training based on listening to and respecting others benefits not only the new autistic employee but also the enterprise as a whole. In the end, everyone wins.”