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A talented artist’s story

Dominic (Nico) Smith: nicolino.art@gmail.com

My name is Dominic Smith, Nico for short, and I was diagnosed with autism at age three and have type one diabetes.

I have some communication challenges, and it has caused rejection and many difficulties during my entire life. However, I have talent and a dream I wish to share and hopefully find some support. This is my story.

I learned to read, count, and write as a toddler, thanks to old Disney movie opening credits.

As an example of my inability to understand speech, I walked out of my daycare classroom because I didn’t understand verbal commands, but I complied when they posted a sign that said, “stay inside.”

When I was six, I went to therapy at Sacramento State University and placed in a school for disabled children. During that time, playing Nintendo 64 with my brother and a neighborhood friend stimulated my communication abilities and allowed me to transfer from that school to a neurotypical school. 

I got along well with the kids in that school by being playful, imaginative, and showing my talent for art. During second grade, our neighborhood friend moved away, and I never saw him again. This was upsetting because he was like a big brother to me.

After that, I met my first best friend Iris. I mimicked her schoolwork and actions out of curiosity because I wanted to know about the neurotypical world, which annoyed her. Iris avoided me until she learned I was autistic. I didn’t think about my autism much then because I carried on like any other kid, and since the other kids accepted me and went to my birthday party, I couldn’t tell the difference between the behaviors of an autistic child and those of a neurotypical child.

When I was eleven, we moved to a country house, where I spent the rest of my pre-teenage years. I became enamored with a Disney Channel show called Brandy & Mr. Whiskers. The creator, Timothy Bjorklund, was a connection of my uncle, which allowed me to meet Timothy. I sent Timothy my fan art of the show, and he sent me his concept art in return. That inspired me to become an animator.

My fan art of the stars of Brandy & Mr. Whiskers
My fan art of Brandy & Mr. Whiskers
Timothy’s Brandy turnaround sheet
Timothy’s Mr. Whiskers turnaround sheet
Timothy’s concept of the two characters’ treehouse

At twelve, my family began a two-year travel adventure. That time inspired me to enjoy travel, learn about and draw landmarks, eat ethnic foods, and discover foreign language, different cultures and history. Because of this, I had the highest score in History and Spanish classes in high school.

Drawings During My Two Years of Traveling

Drawing of King Ludwig’s Castle in Germany
Pictograph of an Italian travel book
Views of the Empire State Building
Big Ben with facts about English culture

In high school, I learned to handle bullies by playing with them and having a wacky sense of humor. I wrote my perceived enemies’ names on the detention list, pushed them into the girls’ bathroom the way they did to me, and we all learned to a great time together. I was popular for having artistic talent, shared mutual interests, and was invited to parties. Those were the best years of my life.

For this reason, I created a 90-minute-long movie of my friends and me going on a trip to Disneyland and Six Flags before high school graduation.

Screenshots of the movie “Seniors: Class of 2011”
Screenshots of the movie “Seniors: Class of 2011”

When I entered the Art Institute College to study animation, I had a hard time making friends and finding a job due to my lack of social skills. It impeded my ability to interview well and find a girlfriend. I became depressed and upset that I couldn’t engage in other’s social circles uninvited. They refused when I invited them to chat or hang out with me due to “their other plans.”

Background designs I made in college.

When I asked my first Facebook friend Akila to hang out, she didn’t want to spend time with me. That was when I moved away from drawing backgrounds and started drawing my own characters, the very characters that would want to hang out with me.

Character designs of my fictional band Hunter Hunters that I made in college.

Later in my college years, I balanced time in college with my time with Inclusion Films Sacramento, a film school for autistic children. My experience at Inclusion Films changed my life forever, as I learned to make live-action films like a Hollywood studio, made cool friends that were autistic like me, and went out to lunch with my first girl. With Inclusion Films, I went on internships with the Sacramento Kings and the State Fair. I traveled to the East Coast to work with members from other Inclusion Films workshop locations and helped create films at film camps in New Jersey and Michigan. I was recognized as an outstanding editor by the head of Inclusion Films, Joey Travolta.

Unfortunately, my stint with Inclusion Films didn’t last long; skipping Inclusion Films sessions to attend the Art Institute’s classes produced a warning that they’d dismiss me from the program if I missed more hours. I had to choose between Inclusion Films and my Animation Degree. I decided to finish my degree and left the program.

When I returned from Inclusion Films, I created 2D animated art. These are some clips from some of them.

Use of multi-plane camera and quadruped animation,
created in Photoshop and AfterEffects
Rabbit Gets a Shock
Drumming Rabbit

I never revealed my autism in college until my last year, because I was under the impression that I had more of the mindset of an average adult than an autistic male. But facing my social problems, I told the entire school about my autism. If I had done so earlier, I believe I would have made more friends.  It taught me a great lesson.

After revealing my autism, I made some great friends, got a girlfriend, and finally moved into the house I lived in at age eight. I achieved all the independence of a neurotypical young adult. Right before graduation, I got to see Akila at a party, we had a nice conversation, and we have been on good terms ever since.

I graduated from the Art Institute with a Bachelor’s Degree in Science. Still, I couldn’t get a job in animation for either an internship or an entry-level position. I didn’t a single interview.

It was so frustrating that I decided to start my own business. In my business, I wanted to make a movie based on an idea about my experiences in elementary school, when I loved playing with friends but hated learning the school’s subjects.

I wanted to satirize how completely useless school was to make it in the real world. My schooling never taught home economics and about managing money. Instead, it taught trigonometry and algebra. I couldn’t express the concept in a compelling way, and unable to take it further, I felt that everything I was taught in school was false, including storytelling and animation.

While trying to focus on my business, my dad helped me get interviews with the State of California. They hired me, and I worked for four years in customer service at the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. I settled for what I could get, not what I wanted.

When I finally got interviews with the State of California that were permanent, other candidates were chosen, even though I thought I did well in some of the interviews.

During the pandemic lockdown, I worked with a group of animators who paid tribute to an anime TV show called Beastars. Doing this project, my subscriber count on my YouTube channel TheNicotinamide grew and got my video hundreds of likes.

My “Beastars” contribution by Nico Smith

Finally, I got a full-time position at an Amazon warehouse. Sadly, their Human Resources department was not proficient at accommodating people with diabetes and autism, and I left.  

While working for Amazon, I was in a car accident. The other driver called the police while I called my mom and dad to notify them about the incident just as my phone died. When the police arrived, they found syringes in my glove compartment. I showed them my blood testing kit and insulin pump, which allowed the police accept that I was a diabetic. I turned on my car and charged up my dead iPhone, so I could show them a picture of my insurance card. My parents came and told the police that I was a high-functioning autistic, and we left.

My parents moved away to Hawaii shortly after, and I felt that I had the independence I always wanted in my life. I had a bank account, medical insurance, a car, and some longtime friends as my support system.  

My independence on the mainland lasted six months. My parents believed my communication challenges were a disability that wouldn’t allow me to make it through life without their assistance. They insisted I move to Hawaii. Their lack of understanding that I needed a different type of support made me feel worthless.

Previously, I experienced a decade learning about finance, traveling, living independently, and dealing with emergencies. I missed my friends and had difficulty finding other individuals on the spectrum. Finally, after months of searching, I had a neighbor who claimed to be on the spectrum, and I moved into my apartment.

I enjoy having my own apartment with an ocean view, visiting archaeological sites, seeing the glowing Kilauea volcano, hiking in caves and jungles, and viewing the stars from atop Mauna Kea.

Spelunking at the Kaumana Caves in Hilo
Kilauea’s crater with the Scorpio constellation and Venus

Even though it might seem to others I am in paradise, I am not living out my dream to be an artist and animator. Understanding my predicament in Hawaii, my uncle posted my art on Linkedin, showing my latest 3D rendering of the Sistine Chapel, and asked if anyone could help me.

3-D of the Sistine Chapel entrance by Nico Smith
3-D model of the Sistine Chapel by Nico Smith
3-D Model of the Sistine Chapel ceiling

Fortunately, someone saw the post and recognized my talent. We have been working together to tell my story, connect with the right individuals in art and animation, and find ways I can make art and animation my profession.  

I am hopeful the Autism Community can help me. I’m hard working, dependable, work well with others, and excel at my passion when given the opportunity to prove myself.   I am optimistic and determined that my talent will be recognized, and I will find a proper place in life where I can achieve my dreams.

Please help me. I promise I won’t disappoint you.

Dominic (Nico) Smith: nicolino.art@gmail.com

 

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