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Jorge Gutierrez Speaks About ‘Love (of Animation) on The Spectrum’

The Emmy and Annie Award winning writer/director/artist (‘Maya and the Three,’ ‘The Book of Life’) shared his thoughts on neurodivergence, how ‘thinking different is a strength,’ and big leaps in history happened when ‘someone thought differently,’ after delivering the keynote at last month’s first-ever Autism in Entertainment Conference.

“Thinking differently is a strength. In history, all the big leaps happened when someone thought differently.”

That was one of the messages that Emmy and Annie-award-winning writer-director-illustrator Jorge Gutierrez (El Tigre, The Book of Life, Maya and The Three) shared at the first-ever Autism in Entertainment Conference.

Gutierrez, the keynote speaker at the April 5 conference held at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles, has been outspoken about being on the spectrum ever since his diagnosis at age 40. Sitting down with me after his talk, he said, “My previous reps told me not to be vocal about it. But I was like, I already have a career. And I think it’s done more positives than negatives.”

One of the positives he cites: The aspiring animation creatives on the spectrum who came up to him at the conference and shared their work. “I go to conventions and animation industry events all the time,” says Gutierrez. “I look at portfolios all the time and there's a sameness to a lot of the work I see.” But at this conference, he continues, “What I saw were such unique voices. And the ideas were so different than anything I had seen before. I walked out of there honestly drunk with inspiration.”

The AIE Conference came about through a collaboration between Judi Uttal, head of the Orange County Asperger’s Support Group, and Rebecca Beam of the disability-focused staffing and consulting firm Zavikon.

Uttal had worked in recruiting and employment for adults with autism for over a decade. But when her autistic son, Joshua, graduated from Cal State Fullerton University with a Bachelor of Arts in Cinema and Television Arts, she decided to concentrate on helping individuals on the spectrum pursue a career in the entertainment industry. In 2022, she formed the Autism in Entertainment Workgroup.

After getting a grant from the California Department of Developmental Services, Uttal and her allies set the wheels in motion for the 2024 conference. They were joined by a coalition of other organizations working to bridge neurodivergent individuals and the entertainment industry, like Brainstorm Productions, Inclusion Films, The Miracle Project, and Spectrum Laboratory.

Industry representatives from Nickelodeon and video game-maker Ubisoft were also present and spoke, along with “Love on the Spectrum” star and animation creator Dani Bowman, and writer/producer/director Scott Steindorff (Station Eleven). An estimated 400 people attended, some traveling from as far away as New York City. Among them were not only hopeful illustrators, but writers, filmmakers, producers – and 120 employers.

Live-action shows like As We See It and Atypical have brought autistic representation a long way from the days of Rain Man. But behind the scenes in the animation world, a movement is brewing. Powerhouses like Disney and Nickelodeon have committed to hiring autistic talent throughout their organizations. Ubisoft has a dedicated, official neurodivergent hiring initiative. An organization called Exceptional Minds is now in its 13th year of training autistic individuals in animation and visual effects, many of whom have worked on Marvel movies.

For Gutierrez, the synergy between neurodivergence and animation is no surprise. “What we do is such a specific skill and a lot of it takes ridiculous amounts of concentration and hyper focusing,” traits that he feels often come naturally to differently wired brains like his.

And the connection goes even deeper, he suggests. Although neurodiverse people are… well, diverse, many on the spectrum struggle with decoding other people’s facial expressions and sometimes cloaked intentions. In social encounters, that can be a disadvantage. But in animation, says Gutierrez, it can be an advantage. He points to what illustrators refer to as “micro expressions.” He notes, “When a character says something, but they mean something else and the body's revealing the truth. Well people on the spectrum, we've been doing that for years, analyzing others.”

Dani Bowman, who in addition to being a TV star (Love on the Spectrum), founded and runs the DaniMation studio and animation-training school, agrees. “Animation holds a special allure for individuals on the autism spectrum, serving as both a source of stimulation and a visual form of ASMR,” she maintains. “In its captivating visuals, animation… provides a unique lens through which individuals on the spectrum can navigate the complexities of human expression and connection."

Ezra Fields-Meyer, an autistic individual who has hosted 167 episodes of the podcast “Animation… and Beyond!” since 2019, has also noticed the special appeal of animation for those on the spectrum, saying “autism and creativity, they combine, they mix.” He agrees that sometimes it’s easier for him to relate to animated people than real-life ones.

Gutierrez says he’s seen his animated works hit a special chord among autistic viewers. “I get a bazillion fan letters from parents with kids on the spectrum, or artists who are on the spectrum, or kids who are on the spectrum. I'm not 100% sure what the connection is, but I definitely think a lot of autistic kids really like busyness and really like the sort of texture of a busy complex world.”

He claims that this “busyness” is a key piece of his artistic process. “When I write I usually put on music and a movie. So, I have two things going on. If I'm drawing, then I put on a game, right? Like a Lakers game or a Dodgers game, a documentary and music. I need the noise to focus.”

And as far as the incredible layers of “busyness” that fill every frame of a Gutierrez project, they come from a similar instinct. “When I loved stuff as a kid,” Gutierrez recalls, “I would watch it over and over and over. And I loved when I found the layers and I found the meanings. The more I watched stuff, the more I would find things. So, I consciously do that and I'm like, all right, the first time people watch this, they will not catch this, this little Easter egg. But the second time and the third time and the fourth time, we're gonna reward repeated viewings.”

Finally, Gutierrez sees a link between being on the spectrum and some of the themes of his work. “El Tigre is a kid who's torn between two worlds, right? Basically, being a good guy and a bad guy. I was torn between the U.S. and Mexico and between my dad being an architect and my grandfather being a general in the Mexican army. So, loving two things and being forced to choose one of the two. And then The Book of Life is about an artist who struggles and literally has to die and reinvent himself to come back and prove to everybody that what he wants to do is good. Those two characters are outsiders who are trying desperately to, to fit in and, and appease their families, but be themselves. And I think that's an autism story, right? A lot of autistic kids connect with, with both of those tales.”

As for his plans beyond the conference, Gutierrez teases, “Something that I'm developing in the Book of Life/Maya world, but I can't say anything about it. An adult animation pilot that I can't say anything about, and then something for The Simpsons that I'm not supposed to say anything about.”

But what he can say for the moment is that he left the AIE conference with tons of business cards and Instagram handles from the creatives who approached him, promising “I'm gonna go through every everybody and start, start interacting. And I'm definitely gonna reach out to some of the artists that I met, to work with them.”

This was exactly one of the outcomes Uttal was hoping for, describing the conference as “a magical event where the work-ready neurodivergent talent got to learn from and network with entertainment industry pros.” And it’s just the beginning, she adds, “of an important movement to expand diversity from just looking different to thinking different."

In other words, she and Gutierrez agree on the power of thinking differently. And both have found a way to bring a dream into reality. Which is exactly what drew a “differently-thinking” kid like Gutierrez into animation in the first place.

“It was a chance to make the world that I wanted to live in,” he says, “And I still believe it is.”

Rob Kutner's picture

Rob Kutner is an Emmy-winning writer for comedy and animated shows like CONAN, The Daily Show, Teen Titans Go! and Ben10.