Remote Possibilities: Autism and the Different Normal

A group zoom photo of students and staff of Exceptional Minds.
Zoom photo of Exceptional Minds' staff and students during "Round Table."

A pandemic wasn’t on the list of challenges for most young adults on the autism spectrum. 

No one could have predicted that they would overcome so many social stigmas in the workplace, only to have the very foundation crumble beneath them. 

And, yet, many individuals with autism are coming out the other side of COVID-19 stronger than before. 

Now months into the largest unanticipated social experiment in the history of business, companies are discovering that employees with autism are adapting to working remotely. 

Many, in fact, are good at it.  

Companies report that their team members with autism excel at complex projects and communicate better in remote work settings, a new finding for a population that is twice as likely to be under- or unemployed than people without disabilities. At least one global IT firm has concluded that hiring more people with autism is the answer to a tech skills shortage.  

These findings confirm what we’ve long suspected at Exceptional Minds but hadn’t put to the test until recently. 

In June, the Exceptional Minds class of 2020 graduated after completing their final studies online from their homes, away from their peers, instructors, and routines. These were the last critical months of a rigorous three-year program in which they developed technical, creative, and team-building skills to enter careers in animation, visual effects, gaming and graphics, and other highly competitive digital arts fields. With the steadfast guidance and the unwavering belief in their abilities by their instructors, all 12 in the Exceptional Minds graduating class of 2020 rose to the challenge to master not only these important skills but also those skills they’d need to effectively compete in the new world of remote working. 

One instructor and five students viewing a screen of a 3D model in Autodesk Maya
Instructor Randi D. teaching 3D in Autodesk Maya

Inspired by their resiliency, Exceptional Minds instructors immediately opened up Summer Workshops for online instruction. That same month, more than 160 youth with autism took to Zoom to learn about animation, game building, and motion graphics – all hands-on classes that had been taught by Exceptional Minds instructors in-house but they now teach behind the screen as a result of the pandemic. These students also excelled and thrived in the different normal, as did Exceptional Minds full-time students and graduates entering summer internships, an expanding component to Exceptional Minds’ professional development program. In July, Exceptional Minds student Jake Reiss started his summer internship with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as planned, but with one important change: he signed on virtually.

Meanwhile, working artists in the Exceptional Minds visual effects studio completed several projects after finishing cleanup shots for season 2 of Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy, and the Exceptional Minds animation studio wrapped up a complex mixed-media project. The latter was the studio’s most ambitious project to date involving visual effects, music composition, and a dozen animators working in collaboration over the phone and online. The four-month project reached its critical mass during the early weeks of lock-down and required an orchestrated effort between creativity, tools, and talent. The project was delivered on time, within budget and by an online project team made up entirely of artists on the autism spectrum. 

By the time June was over, we – like so many others – had discovered a world of remote possibilities for people with autism. We discovered that working from home away from harsh industrial lighting is a welcomed sensory break for many people with autism, as is the break from office noise and closed in working environments. We’ve learned that communication tools such as Slack and Zoom agree with many on the spectrum, as do calendar applications that can set deadlines and manage time and resources when a manager isn’t nearby to enforce structure.

Most of all, like others, we’ve learned that this population is capable of so much more than we ever dreamed possible for them. After all, this is a population that is no stranger to technology, the very same that is practiced in dealing with disruptions in routine and physical distancing. We are just now realizing all the remote possibilities for this capable population.

Exceptional Minds is a professional training academy and working studio for young adults on the autism spectrum. We are a 501(3)(c) nonprofit organization based out of Los Angeles, CA that specializes in training young adults with autism spectrum disorder for meaningful careers in post-production and digital animation. Subscribe to our Newsletter here.

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