Autistic children show their brilliance
North Shore NOW - 11/8/2017
An autistic child's love of Thomas the Tank Engine led his parents to create an organization dedicated to helping autistic children, now in its fifth year.
Mark and Margaret Fairbanks, of Shorewood, created Islands of Brilliance, a nonprofit dedicated to using project-based learning through technology to help children with autism discover their intrinsic capabilities, as well as helping them practice communication to help them become more independent as adults.
The nonprofit's studio is in Milwaukee'sThird Ward, 415 E. Menomonee St.
The idea was sparked when their son, Harry, was diagnosed with autism at age 3.
The doctor also gave the Fairbankses a bleak prognosis for their son's future.
"They literally said, 'He won't be ready for first grade, and don't plan on him going to college,'" Mark Fairbanks said. "So you can imagine as a parent, you're already scared.
"That just made us angry because basically he was telling us to lower our expectations. Our response was ... I actually said, 'He will be ready for first grade, and we'll determine what he's capable of doing.'"
Thomas the Tank Engine
Margaret Fairbanks, who used to be an actress, had been trying to model conversations and social skills for Harry, trying to use what she learned from experts. But Harry was not responding to her efforts.
Then Margaret Fairbanks realized she would have to enter Harry's world, which revolved around the TV show "Thomas the Tank Engine" and its characters.
"If I'm going to do improv and I'm going to reach my audience, I have to become a train for him to care, so I did," Margaret Fairbanks said. "I literally would crawl around on the floor and make noises. The first time I did that was the first time he looked at me in a very long time."
That moment taught the Fairbankses to use Harry's interests to help him learn. They used the show as a way to teach Harry how to read and how to hold a pen and pencil, for example. That helped the couple build a bridge between their son's world and theirs.
Harry's love of technology
Gradually, Harry continued to make progress in his learning. When Harry was 8, his dad said he noticed Harry was using technology, browsing YouTube and posting in online threads and having conversations with others.
Mark Fairbanks noticed technology was a "level-setter" in helping Harry's communication and social skills. Then Harry took an interest in Adobe Illustrator, a program Mark Fairbanks used at the time for an advertising agency he worked for.
"With five minutes of instruction, (Harry) picked up how to do Adobe Illustrator, a professional design program," Mark Fairbanks said.
That, along with Harry's involvement in other special-needs programs, sparked the idea for the Fairbankses' nonprofit, Islands of Brilliance.
Today, Harry is a student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which is where his father gave a TEDx talk about Islands of Brilliance in 2014.
The IOB concept
Islands of Brilliance, according to Mark Fairbanks, was modeled around the strengths of those with autism, like Harry. Five years ago, in October 2012, the Fairbankses started the program at Discovery World in Milwaukee with seven students and seven volunteers.
After the success of the first session, the program is looking at 230 students in the Milwaukee area alone this year, along with 300 volunteers. It also has chapters in Minneapolis and Duluth in Minnesota and has conducted workshops in Portland, Oregon, and Chicago.
At the studio, students have the opportunity to work with design professionals on a project that ultimately results in an 18x240-inch poster based on each student's area of affinity or interest. The design professionals teach them the software skills needed to complete the project.
Mark Fairbanks said the students' creativity is on a whole other level, saying they are fearless in coming up with their ideas. The Fairbankses said the students also have gained self-confidence and a willingness to try new things, even outside the class.
"They leave feeling rejuvenated about that experience," Mark Fairbanks said.
Volunteers range from undergraduate design students to creative directors at the top agencies in Milwaukee, such as Hanson Dodge and GS Design, for example.
"I don't know that there's an agency that has not participated on some level," Mark Fairbanks said.
At first, the Fairbankses weren't sure how the design professionals would be able to handle working with the students.
But they were pleasantly surprised at volunteers' reactions to the experience.
"We've heard 'it's rejuvenating'; we've heard 'it has been a reset button'; we've heard 'oh, my gosh, I thought I was creative and I am nothing compared to how this kid thinks,'" Margaret Fairbanks said.
The Fairbankses were also happy to see working relationships and even friendships form between the volunteers and students, and even the students' families.
"It's become this community now, especially once we started increasing the frequency of the programming where we're doing it every month," Mark Fairbanks said. "When people get together at the workshops, it's like this joyous reunion when people see each other."
Islands of Brilliance will hold its annual fundraiser, Colors and Cords, Friday, Nov. 10, at the historic Turner Hall Ballroom in downtown Milwaukee. One of the Islands of Brilliance's students, Trinity Jackson, will create her art on stage live while a musical act performs.
For more information on the fundraiser and workshops, visit islandsofbrilliance.org.