Diagnosed with autism as a toddler, Lloyd Hackl struggles with things most people take for granted.
The 22-year-old student can barely make conversation, avoids eye contact and occasionally blurts out nonsequiturs. When asked his age, he looked confused and said, “I don’t remember — what year is it now?”
And yet Hackl contributed skilled post-production work on “American Hustle,” the film due out Dec. 18 by Academy Award-nominated director David O. Russell, featuring a star-studded cast that includes Christian Bale, Amy Adams and his winning “Silver Linings Playbook” trifecta of Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro and Jennifer Lawrence.
Hackl’s name will appear in the end credits, along with those of Eli Katz, Patrick Brady and Arielle Guthrie, all students of Exceptional Minds, a Sherman Oaks, Calif. nonprofit vocational center and animation studio for young adults with autism.
“You can’t judge them by the way they look or by the way they talk,” said Yudi Bennett, the school’s operations director. “Somebody on the outside looking at Lloyd would only see the limitations. We see the potential.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes autism spectrum disorders as developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. At Exceptional Minds, teachers work on turning those negatives into positives.
“(Those with autism) have high attention to detail, and that’s a trait we’re trying to capitalize on,” said the school’s program director, Ernie Merlán. “I call it their superpower.”
For “American Hustle,” the students did rotoscoping, a tedious animation technique necessary for color correction, and computer effects such as making superheroes fly by erasing the wires that hold them up. When asked if he enjoys the precise art of rotoscoping, Katz, 22, responded with an emphatic “yeah!”
“This is something that they have an eye for and also the patience for,” Merlán said of the students, underscoring the school’s overall goal to help these young adults develop a livelihood. “They love to do it — they can do it all day long.”
Exceptional Minds’ lead instructor, Josh Dagg, said nothing compares to helping students with autism feel the sense of accomplishment that comes with making a living. “I know that the program is working because we’ve been able to teach them to deliver on a professional level — on a level that can be blown up to 30-60 feet high and shown globally,” he said. “If their work is good enough for that, then it’s good enough for anybody.”
For some on the staff, it’s a personal crusade — both Bennett’s only son and Dagg’s youngest brother are autistic.
“Exceptional Minds started with a group of parents trying to figure out what was going to happen to our kids after high school,” Yudi said, adding the unemployment rate among those with autism is about 90 percent.
The school allows students to earn certification in post-production work by providing customized instruction, hands-on training, expert lectures and field trips to various studios.
It helps that Bennett and Lloyd’s father, Robert Hackl, are well connected in the movie industry. The former is an assistant director whose credits include “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Broadcast News,” and Hackl is a post-production supervisor with many films under his belt, including “Lawless” and “Milk.”
To help the students earn job experience — and a paycheck — the school secures contracts to do visual-effects cleanup work, titles and end credits for the movie industry, as well as web design for various businesses and slide shows for family reunions.
A psychologist is often on hand to help the students with their interpersonal skills.
Bennett believed all of the students would make excellent employees someday, because they are “really dedicated,” frequently even arriving early, leaving late and working through lunch.
“They don’t waste time around the water cooler, and they don’t call in sick either,” she said. “We have two kids who have been here three years but have never missed a day.”
Annual tuition at the school runs $32,000, of which parents pay half. The other half is paid for through donations or grants secured by Exceptional Minds.
Success story Arielle Guthrie, 27, used her first paycheck to buy a concert ticket to see her favorite band. “It feels good to know that I’m capable of doing the things I want to do,” she said.
Patrick Brady, 23, said he would have ended up in the fast-food industry if not for Exceptional Minds. Asked how it felt to have a job he finds so captivating, he answered simply: “It just really makes me happy.”
© 2013 the Los Angeles Daily News
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