Dakota La Ness (image courtesy the artist)

The first time Dakota La Ness went into the Cartoon Network studios, he was impressed by the employee perks — like having a pool table at work. But even more than that, what struck him was being around people who created shows like Justice League, which inspired him to draw when was a kid.

“That’s still mind-blowing to me that we can make drawings move,” La Ness said. “To be able to make a livelihood doing that would be a dream come true.”

La Ness hopes to realize that dream. He is one of the 22 students at Exceptional Minds, a Los Angeles training academy and digital arts studio for people with autism. Recently, the academy paired students up with mentors from Cartoon Network to give artists an opportunity to get feedback on their work and develop career goals. While artists in Exceptional Minds have previously done occasional animation work for Sony and Netflix shows, the Cartoon Network partnership was the nonprofit’s first mentorship program.

La Ness, who is majoring in animation and minoring in storyboarding, got advice on his storyboarding assignments. Another student who is part of the program, Jackson Meigs, says his mentor asked him to do things like find an artist online and explore how they got to where they are, while another student, Dustin Noriyuki, says his mentor helped him revise his resume and cover letter.

Adults with autism have an extremely high rate of unemployment or under-employment — more than 80%, says Jeffrey Shapiro, the executive director of Exceptional Minds. Shapiro says the program has made a big difference in the students’ lives with a placement rate of 66% of their students (they’ve worked with more than 600 over the years). He thinks that getting to work with and get advice from professionals in the field, like animators at Cartoon Network, is part of the reason for that.

Jack Meigs storyboard (image courtesy the artist)

“They’re eating up every nugget they’re getting,” he said about the mentees. “They’re relishing this special opportunity most students don’t have.”

According to Shapiro, the partnership doesn’t only benefit the artists — it also transforms expectations of their mentors. “What we’re also seeing is, as they get exposed to Exceptional Minds students, there’s a shift,” he said. “There’s a greater understanding of individuals with autism and an acceptance.”

Meigs loves the creative part of the program, but he appreciates the vocational piece as well. “I think it’s one of the best things about Exceptional Minds. The first time I came here, they were telling me right away how important it is to present yourself and to look professional,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s harder for people to accept you.”

Noriyuki says he has gotten good advice about interviewing and solving conflicts. “We practice very specific scenarios like dealing with stressful situations at work,” he said. “It has helped help me to learn how to receive and request feedback on work.”

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Noriyuki, Meigs, and La Ness seemed almost in awe that they got to work with people creating shows they love. Several of the Cartoon Network shows “hold a place in my heart,” La Ness said, including Samurai Jack and Batman: The Animated Series. Noriyuki said shows on Cartoon Network made him want to draw. Both he and Meigs mentioned Ed, Edd n Eddy, a show about three preteen boys, which is drawn in the style of classic cartoons from the 1940s to the 1970s, as a favorite.

“They’re different from other shows,” Meigs said about Cartoon Network’s creations. “They have a different visual presence and background and setting. They inspire me to experiment.”

This was Cartoon Network’s first collaboration with Exceptional Minds, and already officials at the organizations are talking about doing it again. Cartoon Network’s Chief Content Officer Rob Sorcher said he hoped that getting to work with animation professionals would have a big impact on the artists, but also stressed that the program contributes to the studio.

Sorcher wrote over email, “as part of the studio’s overall commitment to finding artists that reflect the diversity of our audience, we hoped to build bridges for unique animation talent.”

One of the mentors, Nick Jennings, an animation director who worked on SpongeBob SquarePants as well as the Cartoon Network series Adventure Time said his experience was only positive, and he heard good things from other mentors as well.

Jennings saw the artist he worked with become more comfortable in the studio and get a better understanding of the specific requirements of the field he wants to go into, character design.

“He gained knowledge about schedules, deadlines, and strategies to help in these areas,” Jennings wrote in an email. “I think the first-hand experience in a studio environment has resulted in greater confidence, understanding, and artistic demands that will help him move toward a successful career in animation.”

Emily Wilson is a radio and print reporter in San Francisco. She has written stories for dozens of media outlets including NPR, Latino USA, the San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, California Teacher,...