Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Exceptional Minds, a digital arts academy for young adults with autism, announced that VFX veteran Shish Aikat has joined the school as vice principal to manage its three-year program. The institution, which is opening Exceptional Minds Studio (EMS) this year, reported that its student body has grown three-fold since the school’s founding in 2011.
Aikat has an extensive background in education and postproduction, including experience as a digital arts instructor at Loyola Marymount University and as the global learning manager for postproduction studio Rhythm & Hues. Aikat has worked on such films as Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), Life of Pi (2013) and Night at the Museum (2006).
“Shish has a rare mix of experiences that are needed at this critical time when we’re launching a new working studio – and just months away from graduating our first class and starting our new school year with even more students on our rolls. His perspective and his talents are invaluable at this next stage of growth,” said Ernie Merlán, whose role as Exceptional Minds’ program director will expand along with that of Yudi Bennett, the organization’s director of operations, to oversee the daily operations and direction of EMS.
Exceptional Minds’ three-year vocational program prepares students for careers in postproduction, VFX and related fields. Its first eight graduating students will enter the workforce this June with working experience and proficiency in at least six industry-standard software programs, including Adobe ACA certifications.
The graduation coincides with the official launch of Exceptional Minds Studio (EMS), a working studio co-located with the school that was established last year and is now gearing up to provide postproduction services by professionally certified young men and women with high-functioning autism who have completed, or are in the process of completing, the requirements of the Exceptional Minds program. Already students – all in their 20s − have performed postproduction work for a half-dozen movies, including Oscar-nominated motion picture American Hustle.
“My goal for Exceptional Minds students is to create a lifetime of learning, and it all starts with this very symbiotic relationship between the school and the studio,” said Aikat, who is a firm believer in the concept and practice known as global learning – an all-encompassing term for employee development that goes beyond technical skills to prepare individuals for life-long learning. “In many ways, Exceptional Minds students are facing the same challenges as when I managed movie projects across a team in six geographically disperse locations, each with divergent cultures and skillsets,” explained Aikat.
Aikat explained that the visual cues of autism are often misunderstood, but added that “We can overcome those misperceptions through training and technology. This is the perfect environment because we are able to match our program to the Hollywood contracts we’re getting and the actual work being done. There is no better way to prepare our students as well as our facility for the real world.”
Roughly 750,000 young adults with autism are expected to reach adulthood in the coming decade, many destined for unemployment or underemployment. Exceptional Minds offers a unique three-year vocational program for students with autism who are pursuing careers in the digital arts.