Meet animators with autism
<em>Sesame Street</em> and Autism: see amazing in all children
Hello Friends!

As you may know, April is National Autism Acceptance Month! One of the ways we’re celebrating is by debuting a brand new animation created by one of our partners, Exceptional Minds, a non-profit professional studio and training program that teaches animation and other digital arts skills to individuals on the autism spectrum.

Exceptional Minds has created an amazing animated short for Sesame Workshop about Julia, her brother Samuel, and Super Fluffster—the superhero alter ego of Julia’s stuffed bunny. We recently spoke with Exceptional Minds’ Howie Hoffman, a creative director with a prolific career in children’s media, and two accomplished artists with autism, Dylan Carbonell, 26, and Jacob Lenard, 22, who both graduated from Exceptional Minds’ training program in 2018 and held supervisory roles on the project. Be one of the first to watch the animation below, and read on for more from our interview with Howie, Dylan, and Jacob!

—The Sesame Street and Autism Team
Dylan Carbonell (left) and Jacob Lenard (right), Exceptional Minds graduates
Getting Started
First, Sesame Workshop gave Exceptional Minds a script. Howie, the animation’s creative supervisor, invited Dylan and Jacob to block out the scenes with him, and the two became assistant directors and co-art directors. They added their own flourishes and gags, like Super Fluffster trying to fly into space without his rocket ship. They decided on a mixed media approach to make a clear distinction between Julia’s imagination (2D animated elements) and reality (3D objects like the glue bottle), “to match the style to the idea,” Howie explained. Dylan created the storyboards and backgrounds, and Jacob created the characters.

Challenges and Solutions
While Dylan and Jacob each have their own styles and points of view, this project needed to be suitable for a very young audience. As in any agency-client relationship, the animators at Exceptional Minds received and incorporated notes from Sesame Workshop. Before they could begin animating, certain considerations, approvals, and changes needed to be made. “In each case, Dylan and Jacob came up with solutions that were even better,” Howie said. Originally, for example, Super Fluffster flies to the top of a city skyscraper to take off on the rocket ship. When they received a note from Sesame that it wouldn’t be wise to have toddlers on top of a building, Jacob had an idea: “Since the scene had a UFO, I usually think of the desert,” so he came up with the solution of using a mesa in the desert as the rocket launch pad instead. “They’re not just being creative, but also solving problems,” Howie said.

The Sesame Spirit
When designing characters, Jacob was inspired by Sesame Street. The little girl reaching for the ball in a tree is based on Betty Lou, and the boy on the swing is inspired by a mix of the Count and Guy Smiley. Viewers may also recognize the two aliens on Planet Yip Yip: “As a Sesame Street fan, I wanted to use the Martian characters—Yip Yips,” Dylan said. Sesame was happy to sign off!

“I’ve been a huge fan of Jim Henson for many years. I’ve always been greatly inspired by his style, sense of humor, and his work ethic. So to actually be part of Sesame Street’s legacy—and by extension, Muppet legacy—is a great honor. It’s something I never thought would happen.” Dylan shared. Jacob agreed: “I’ve always been fond of all the animated segments on Sesame Street. They always have great animation and great music. It’s awesome to work on one.”

See the Amazing
“I feel my autism gives me an eye for detail,” Dylan said. “It makes me see the world in ways most other people wouldn’t. I am hyper-focused on the little things. The little things do make the biggest difference.” Indeed, animation is a wonderful example of that. “Animation is the one thing that I really know that I like to do,” Jacob said. “It’s my passion, it’s my thing…coming up with characters, stories, gags, worlds.”

What’s Next
Jacob is presently working on an independent animated series, and soon will begin work on a project for a major animation network. Dylan is currently testing for animation studios. Down the line, he would like to work on his own independent cartoons. “I’m really proud of these guys,” Howie said before we ended our conversation. “I get inspired by them.”

More About Exceptional Minds
Exceptional Minds was founded on the belief that every child with autism should be free to dream just as big as any child dreams. The nonprofit includes a training academy and a studio for individuals with autism pursuing careers in the digital arts. They hold summer workshops for kids ages 12 and older, and a three-year program for young adults like Dylan and Jacob, after which graduates enter apprenticeships and ultimately careers in the digital arts. Exceptional Minds not only gives students technical animation skills, but built-in support systems and job readiness training.

This National Autism Acceptance Month adds new and unexpected challenges for the nonprofit due to the current global shared experience.
Find out how you can help.
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