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How a Superpower Animation Helped One Autistic Artist Cope With COVID-19

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If someone you know or love is on the spectrum, you know how challenging this year has been. Here is the story of how one young man found his purpose again amid the chaos and uncertainty of 2020. The following was written by Patricia Turney, mom of Exceptional Minds graduate and studio artist Andrew Turney. Patricia also happens to be the board chairperson for Exceptional Minds, a school and studio for animators and visual artists on the autism spectrum. Her words are a reminder to us all of the importance of connection, community, and meaningful participation.  

The year 2020 has been a year like no other and has affected each of us in so many extraordinary ways. For my son, Andrew, a talented young man on the autism spectrum, this year has caused many of the recent advancements in his independence, self-reliance and forward career momentum to come to a screeching halt. For the past two years he had a schedule of working in the Exceptional Minds Animation Studio for eight hours a day, five days a week.

In March, this immediately changed as the studio, like all businesses, closed to avoid the spread of COVID-19. Not only did this change Andrew’s critical routine and purpose, which we know is so important for those on the spectrum, but it also deeply affected his social interaction with others, including mentors, supervisors and co-workers. Work slowed down tremendously and paid projects became non-existent.

Worried about infection, Andrew moved back in with our family during this time. He did not just struggle financially and socially. Andrew also became the only one in the house who was not on Zoom, or engaged in school or work expectations or potential opportunities. Although he poured himself into his personal creative filming projects, I noted the change in self-worth and pride as some of his skills and abilities waned. He didn’t have an incentive to maintain a regular sleep schedule and instead preferred to play video games and sleep in, habits he had worked so hard to change.

Then in June, the call came in that paid work had come in through a collaborative project funded by Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation (MEAF) to commemorate their 30-year anniversary empowering youth with disabilities to lead productive lives. He would need to be on a Zoom call at the beginning and end of each day. He would be responsible for using not just the skills he learned while at Exceptional Minds but also his creativity in how to best apply those talents. He became part of a team with goals, deadlines and a shared sense of responsibility.

That first week Andrew worked from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m. and throughout the weekend. He was invigorated with the challenge and he was even recognized for Exceptional Minds’ employee of the week award! Around the house, he showed renewed pride, held his head up higher, and eagerly began showing his family how he turned an actual video recording into an animated one. Once the project was completed, Andrew proudly shared it with aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins. The project allowed Andrew, once again, to earn his own money, contribute his unique skills and perspectives and feel a part of the world at large. He spent his earnings on a green screen panel and lighting to support his own creative projects and yearning to create a mini-studio at home.

I know the Mitsubishi project ended a few months back now (check out the result, “What is Your Superpower?!)” but that project served to inspire Andrew in several ways. It ended the rut of his routine-less day, as he now maintains more regular sleep and waking patterns. He embarked on a new, personal project that involved script development, time management with deadlines, production, collaboration with voice actors across the globe, character creation/development, utilization of complex computer-animated technical skills, sound and video editing, and advertising. The day of release, his video had thousands of hits as well as high praise from the animated community group in his genre. He was ecstatic!

As Andrew’s mother, I have always been sure to acknowledge small steps in a positive direction, but what this project inspired in my son has been truly remarkable. It created a spark and ignited his focus. Andrew has proved time and again that he is not someone that wants just a helping hand or someone’s pity. No, Andrew wants the world to see him, to hear him, and to allow him to create and entertain!

Thank you, MEAF, for your partnership and dedication to provide opportunities to those that just need an open door.

Image via Exceptional Minds

Originally published: November 5, 2020
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