“If it’s happening on Sesame Street, we know we can create awareness on every street in America,” says Ernie Merlan, the Program Director for Exceptional Minds, one of 14 collaborating partners for a new Sesame Street initiative launched this week called Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children.

Shane McKaskle, center, and the other artists at Exceptional Minds school of young adults with autism
Shane McKaskle, center, and the other artists at Exceptional Minds school of young adults with autism

The vocational school and studio for young adults with autism was chartered in 2011 with a vision to create a world in which individuals on the spectrum are recognized for their talents and abilities, and are able to achieve their full potential. That vision has since been realized many times over, both in the growth of the school and in the achievements of its graduating artists who now work in the demanding field of visual effects for the entertainment industry.

Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children is the latest in a growing list of impressive projects that the visual effects artists at Exceptional Minds have worked on, among them “Ant-Man,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “American Hustle.”

“We are proud to partner with Exceptional Minds to create these critical resources for the community,” says Sherrie Westin, Executive Vice President of Global Impact and Philanthropy for Sesame Workshop. “This collaboration is a perfect example of what this initiative is all about: seeing the amazing in all people. These young men and women at Exceptional Minds are creative, determined and amazing artists.” “We hope to lead by example and help educate the public about autism, and we recognized immediately that Sesame Street shared that same goal,” adds Merlan.

For the Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children initiative, Exceptional Minds Studio and its artists (who are all in their 20s and on the spectrum) met with Sesame’s creative and production teams at the school’s Sherman Oaks studios to brainstorm ideas and collaborate on the media content. This resulted in the creation of Benny’s Story, an animated short of young Benny as a typical grade-schooler with autism—which was originated and created by Shane McKaskle and the other artists at Exceptional Minds.

Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children will provide resources to families, teachers and caregivers around the country to educate them about autism, and tools to help families touched by autism with everyday activities. This initiative was funded with generous support from American Greetings, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and Kristen Rohr, and aligns with Sesame Workshop’s mission to help all children grow smarter, stronger and kinder.

“I think all of us have felt left out or different when we were younger. I don’t think I ever felt truly accepted until I got here at Exceptional Minds,” says McKaskle, who is part of Exceptional Minds’ graduating class of 2015 and now provides contract services by the project for Exceptional Minds Studio, an approved studio for Paramount, HBO, Disney, Marvel Studios, 21st Century Fox and Lionsgate.

Autism affects one in 68 children. Currently, the majority of the nation’s 3.5 million people with autism are unemployed or underemployed, according to government statistics. More than 500,000 U.S. children impacted by autism will enter adulthood during this decade, with one in 68 children to follow. Exceptional Minds is the only vocational school and working studio to prepare and successfully place young men and women with autism in careers in the fields of animation and visual effects.

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