Even In Death

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13 Oct 0 Comment

Film camp showcases the talents of autistic young adults in Oklahoma

Originally published on NewsOK by Heather Warlick

Taylor Danielson, 14, uses a stylus on a Surface Pro tablet, maneuvering Photoshop to fill in colors and textures. He is working on an illustration of a school hallway lined with institutional lockers and overhead fluorescent lighting.

Next to Daniel sits Sarah Lauffenburger, 18. She also works on a Surface Pro, coloring an intricately drawn Victorian mansion set in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

Three more talented young artists work on similar scenes, using Photoshop and water colors.

These students have in common a love of art and a desire to learn new skills. They also have autism, except for Sarah who has ADHD.

The five young adults are working on an animated short movie as part of Autism Oklahoma’s Illustration Camp. The film camp consists of three week-long sessions. This first session covers  illustration. During Animation Camp, a new batch of campers will learn how to animate these illustrations. Finally, a Sound Camp group will add sound effects.

Sarah’s sister, Joy Lauffenburger, 22, has experience with Photoshop, as does her service dog, Goldie.

Goldie, a Basenji, as always, is right at Joy’s side as she has been since the early days just after Joy was first diagnosed with autism at age 7.

“This is the first time I’ve ever done art where it’s OK to be a little sloppy, it’s OK to be a little bit different, because we’re making it look like water color. It’s OK to mix all the colors and not be perfect,” Joy says. Goldie lifts her head as if to nod her agreement.

In this room, being a little different is accepted and embraced. These campers are peers, though they vary in age from 14 to 24. They understand one another in ways many will never understand someone else. They respect their similarities and differences.

‘More interesting’

“Their differences and what makes them unique just make them that much more interesting,” Sarah says. “They can contribute a lot to the community through these individual things that they’re good at.”

Sarah has grown up with two autistic sisters. Her mother, Melinda Lauffenburger, is founder and CEO of Autism Oklahoma.

She started the program when Joy was first diagnosed with autism. The mom  realized there was a serious lack of programs, health care and therapy for kids with autism in Oklahoma, where insurance generally doesn’t cover any of these services.

So she did what so many moms in similar situations do; she created opportunities for her child.

That was in 2002. Now, Autism Oklahoma serves more than 4,000 families affected by autism.

Among other services, the nonprofit offers pre-employment programs, such as this animation camp, which is an outreach program of Invisible Layers Productions.

Zac Davis, director of Invisible Layers runs a production studio through Autism Oklahoma with only autistic young adults as volunteer employees.

The film the campers are making is called “Even in Death.” It’s about a young boy, Jonah, whose grandmother dies. He then meets the Grim Reaper, who takes him on an adventure of sorts throughout New Orleans.

“It’s adventurous, it’s sad, it’s heartfelt and often very funny,” Davis said.

Growing up autistic

People often think of autism as only affecting kids. Especially as autism diagnosis rates in children seem to increase yearly, with no end in sight.

But children with autism and and other disabilities don’t remain children. They grow into young adults with specialized interests, talents and dreams. These young adults need to learn the skills necessary for their future dream jobs.

And while becoming professional animators may not be the end goal for each of the individuals attending Autism Oklahoma’s animation camp, the campers are developing skills that will benefit them in their futures.

Social skills may be the most important thing the students take away from the camp, though submitting “Even in Death” to film festivals is the short-term goal for the group.

Davis says he hopes to “give everyone the film festival experience; being able to go and see their production on the big screen. It’s such a unique environment, and to sit in the back and see an audience react to your work is such an amazing experience.”

Professional artists Jonathan Koelsch and Jerry Bennett serve as volunteer art directors at the animation camp.

“These guys are at a little higher level artistic ability,” Koelsch says.

“It’s very common with kids with autism that they typically love art. But these guys, we kind of hand-picked them.  They’re kind of our all-stars.”

Behind the scenes

For about six months before the camp began, the two art pros, along with Davis, developed the concept, storyline and basic style of the film. Then came the drawing.

Koelsch and Bennett painstakingly drew outlines of each scene of the movie, which the campers now are colorizing.

“This gives them a place to run wild with their creativity and with all their energy they have in their minds that they can’t always get out in the real world,” Bennett says.

The project seemed lofty when it was in concept stage, Davis says. But he is thrilled with the progress.

“It’s looking fabulous. It’s turning out better than I kind of even imagined,” he says.

The camp is just one of the many offerings and pre-employment programs sponsored by Autism Oklahoma. The nonprofit is funded solely by donations and two large fundraisers — The Big Swanky Art Show and The Piecewalk and 5k.

Art from students involved with Autism Oklahoma will be on display throughout July at The Arts Institute in Edmond and the non-profit is preparing for The Big Swanky Art Show on Aug. 7 at Rainbow Fleet, a service in the Paseo District for
children and families in central Oklahoma that offers childcare referrals and other developmental programs.

For more information about Autism Oklahoma, go online to or call 315-6337.

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