Program offers creative outlet for those with autism

Mark Fairbanks and his wife, Margaret, were not surprised that their son, Harry, was diagnosed with autism. What did surprise them was that the doctors said they should lower their expectations for their son’s future.

Determined not to give up on their son and noting Harry’s interest in computers, the Fairbanks co-founded Islands of Brilliance in 2012. With Mark’s 25 years of advertising and design experience and Margaret’s teaching expertise, they created a program that pairs a teen or young adult with autism with a professional from the creative services industry, most of whom are volunteers. Together, over a week, they create an 18-by-24-inch poster of their choice using Adobe software.

At the end of the program, participants invite friends and family to show off and answer any questions about their work. But Fairbanks says the workshop offers a lot more than just an art project.

“By giving them this area that they’re comfortable with, they’re able to show growth in areas where they’re uncomfortable and often struggle,” Fairbanks says. “It’s about building confidence and giving them ways to exercise social skills that doesn’t feel like a social skills class.”

Summer workshops are open in Milwaukee and Duluth, Minn., while spring and fall workshops and day sessions are available in Milwaukee. Fairbanks says they are hoping to expand to Chicago as early as this fall. Sessions cost $350. Register and keep up to date with new sessions at islandsofbrilliance.org.

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