By: Maryam Siddiqi
The past two years have seen companies take meaningful strides towards establishing workplaces that are diverse, equitable and inclusive, but barriers continue to exist for neurodiverse job candidates. A recent report by Deloitte Canada and IT consultancy auticon Canada found that the autistic community faces barriers in all aspects of the employment process, beginning with interviews that focus on social competency and continuing in the workplace with a lack of support systems or flexible work policies.
In the US, studies estimate that between 50 to 75% of adults with autism are under- or unemployed. In Canada, that number is 67%. In the UK, 78%.
Among those neurodiverse employees who responded to the Deloitte survey, 47% said they weren’t comfortable sharing their autism with their employer and 42% said they’ve experienced discrimination at work because of their autism. Beyond simply hiring from this talent pool, companies need to adapt workplaces and processes to be more welcoming and share their wins with the industry, so that inclusivity becomes the norm.
Research has shown a positive relationship between autism and creativity; those who are neurodiverse are adept at divergent thinking. In other words, they think outside the box—a coveted skill in the entertainment industry. For companies looking to embrace this talent as DEI initiatives evolve, there are several resources to turn to, from independent studios staffed with neurodiverse talent to courses that provide frameworks for building a hospitable workplace.
Sesame Workshop has been working with the autistic community since 2015, both producing content for the community—most directly with the introduction of Julia, an autistic Muppet—and employing autistic talent for story development and animation.
For the initial launch of content, Sesame Workshop met with Exceptional Minds, a Los Angeles-based training center and studio that works with teens and young adults with autism who want to work in animation, visual effects, 3D gaming and other facets of the entertainment industry.
“We felt it was really important that we not just be creating materials for autistic people, but that we gave autistic people a voice in creating the materials we put out into the world,” says Tina Moglia, supervising producer of digital content at Sesame Workshop. The company has been collaborating with Exceptional Minds studio staff for brainstorming, writing and animation.
Moglia admits she wasn’t sure what to expect when Sesame Workshop started working with this talent pool. She advocated for more time during production so that there was some flexibility with deadlines on that first project but it’s been a non issue. “If anything, sometimes it’s Sesame Workshop that needs the time for us to get our notes together and figure out what we want to say,” she says.
Exceptional Minds’ full-time program is a three-year course for students who’ve graduated from high school. (The school also runs part-time programs, weekend courses and summer programming for kids as young as 14.) The curriculum covers animation and visual effects, from 2D animation to Unreal Engine experience. That’s complemented by workplace readiness training, which includes interview skills, portfolio creation and career path development.
David Siegel, the organization’s executive director and CEO, explains that class size for the full-time program is currently capped at 15, but the organization, which earlier this year won two Marvels of Media awards at the Museum of the Moving Image’s inaugural ceremony, is planning to double that within the next five years.
“There are a lot of jobs out there, and the talent is incredible that we’re graduating,” he says. Exceptional Minds graduates have found placements, jobs or contracts with Marvel, Nickelodeon, and Cartoon Network; alumni have credits on projects like Black Panther, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Spider-Man: Homecoming.
“We’ve seen an uptick of applications—almost 60% more applications—into Exceptional Minds over the last two years,” Siegel says. “It’s really important that we look at responsible and reasonable growth and do it in a way that is measured. But it’s also [about] serving as many of these young adults as we can.”
Last fall, Exceptional Minds partnered with Netflix for the launch of the streaming service’s Animation Foundations Mentorship Program. “The program is an opportunity for mentees to create their own work for their professional portfolios, so they’re better able to compete for early creative programs at Netflix and in the animation industry,” says Erica Sewell, director of outreach and engagement at Netflix. Participants were paired with mentors from Netflix Animation to work on resumes, portfolio development and writing samples, and had access to seminars about the animation pipeline.
While she’s not surprised that the mentees thrived—several have already been hired at companies like Marvel and Diamond Game—she didn’t anticipate the impact the program would have on the mentors. Ford Riley, a writer who was a mentor for the first cohort, told Sewell working with his mentee gave him perspective on his work. “It’s always interesting to learn that aspects of the work that I take as routine don’t come naturally—they have to be learned,” he said.
Moglia has found similar results at Sesame Workshop. “I feel like it’s changed me as a producer: to be a little bit more thoughtful about feedback, to be a little bit more detailed, to always provide the ‘why’ when I’m giving notes,” she says.
Setting existing staff and new talent up for success is part of what was covered in Screen Skills Ireland’s recent Neurodiversity in the Screen Sector course. Gilly Fogg, head creative at Kilkenny, Ireland-based Lighthouse Studios was one of the course’s attendees.
“I’ve been surprised by the strength of the neurodiverse artists I’ve worked with, their strong sense of self and their ability to keep moving themselves forward in a world that doesn’t always work in their favor,” she says.
Along with an overview of the medical, social and practical aspects of neurodiversity, the course covered strategies for employment, integration and supporting this talent. “Taking the course has been eye-opening for me in terms of the many autistic, dyslexic and dyspraxic screen professionals who have hidden and masked who they really are for fear of a negative reaction,” she says. “With a better educated and informed industry, this should—and must—change.”
Fogg says priority number one is educating managers and directors about the challenges that neurodiverse artists face. And when it comes to attracting this talent, a company’s inclusive policy should be apparent at the application stage.
“Companies should make sure that candidates know that there is support available, and that they can request any reasonable accommodation in the process of their employment that will help them perform their very best,” she says. “Ideally, sharing one’s neurodiversity should be as normalized as sharing one’s pronoun preference.”
During recruitment, Lighthouse asks candidates to share if they require any accommodations and provides information about who they’ll meet with and the types of questions that will be asked. Once hired, they accommodate the learning styles of all crew members, sharing information via video tutorial, voice notes and written instructions. Changes to routines or systems are communicated well in advance, and monitor the environment for things like sound levels to make sure everyone is comfortable.
Siegel is extremely bullish about what this talent pool can bring to the entertainment industry, and says that while Exceptional Minds is growing because there’s demand, the industry also has an obligation to the neurodiverse community.
“Every time one of these artists gets a job, every time one of these graduates is able to recruit another graduate, it demonstrates that it’s working,” he says. “We need all the help we can get from our partners [to create] inclusive workplaces that allow for these kinds of unique voices to shine. It’s good for them, and it’s good for business.”
Moglia agrees. “Once you start working with people who think this way, it opens up your brain for everything you do and how you talk to people,” she says. “We all grow as creators and content developers.”