Autism is a mystery. The developmental condition affects one in 68 children in the US, according to a 2014 study by the US Centers for Disease Control. Yet there is still much about autism that is not understood. What we do know is that those on the higher-functioning end of the autism spectrum may be challenged by communication and social interaction. They may also have above-average intellect and tend to have intensely focused interests. They possess abilities and talents that may not be readily visible, due to their difficulty with social situations.
Invisible Layers Productions, a model program of Autism Oklahoma, brings together a group of five young men on the autism spectrum guided by a mentor—all are young adults with an interest in filmmaking. The results are creative, entrepreneurial and rather eye-opening.
Melinda Lauffenburger, founder and Executive Director of Autism Oklahoma, describes Invisible Layers another way. “It’s magic,” she said.
Magic, indeed. The program has been up and running for barely a year, and it has already become almost self-supporting, which is the goal for this model program. Invisible Layers has several business clients, and each month these five young men involved in the organization, all between ages 20 and 30, produce a new video for customers. It’s all accomplished under the direction of Zac Davis, who brings a background in film—he studied in the acclaimed film program of OKC Community College—and experience in producing videos of many Autism Oklahoma events over the last few years.
After Davis produced a film about one of the organization’s other programs, The Big Swanky Art Show, Lauffenburger approached him about going a step further. “We decided to explore with Zac whether he would like to be a mentor for a group of young men who were interested in filmmaking,” she said. “So we started a pre-employment club for them. They all want to make film and video a part of their careers.”
Davis came on board, and with a small group of families who were already involved with Autism Oklahoma, the groundwork was laid. Now, the participants are engaged in every aspect of producing film and video, and each brings his own specialty to the process. They shoot the video, conduct interviews, provide voice-overs and handle editing and post-production. One of the members of Invisible Layers is a musician who does sound design, and composes original music for the productions. Another is interested in animation and motion graphics.
Invisible Layers produces agency-quality videos, such as a recent project for Youth and Family Services of El Reno. The organization, which sustained damage to its building during the 2013 tornado, asked Invisible Layers to put together a production that would welcome the public back to its renovated building, at the same time thanking the community for its support over the past year.
“We used ‘before and after’ footage, did interviews and filmed several of their events,” Davis said.
Another project involves producing a video for the YouTube channel of Oklahoma City’s new professional soccer franchise, the Energy. But while Davis and the young men he mentors are producing top-quality business videos, they aren’t stopping there. Creative work is on the horizon as well. “We have a common interest in films and movies,” he said. “In the future we’d like to move toward doing some short films, and from there we hope to move on to features.”
Likewise, the parent organization Autism Oklahoma sees Invisible Layers as a springboard. “We want to do more programs in an entrepreneurial spirit,” Lauffenburger said. “These are programs that can be self-sufficient and give young people who have autism an opportunity to work together in their areas of interest.”
Any ambitious program faces challenges, and one of the biggest Invisible Layers has encountered to date has been a simple matter of space, of not having sufficient room to store equipment. But Autism Oklahoma has recently received use of a donated building in downtown Oklahoma City, and Lauffenburger and Davis dream of a new studio space for Invisible Layers, as well as room to grow and create more interest groups for young people with autism.
Lauffenburger returns often to the word she believes best describes Invisible Layers. “It’s a magical experience,” she said. “The magic happens when Zac and the guys are working together, with the quality of what they are doing. This is a model of what we can do to make a difference in the lives of young people with autism.”
Davis smiles when he thinks about how far the program has already come and the changes in the lives of the young men with whom he works. “The most rewarding thing is seeing the guys blossom, the friendships they make. They grow. Their confidence grows.”
And the name, “Invisible Layers?” It grew from a conversation Davis had with the mother of a young man with autism, a conversation about the young man’s unusual eating habits and how he would not eat foods if he could not see all their layers. It is a part of the autism mystery.
“It’s a beautiful metaphor of what it is like for a person with autism to struggle,” Davis said. “On the outside, they have a social struggle to talk to people, but on the inside, there are all these other things going on that you don’t get to see. Invisible layers. I knew that’s what I had to name this program.”