UW-Milwaukee professor to study Islands of Brilliance workshop for students with autism

This summer, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor will formally explore the benefits of a Milwaukee nonprofit’s creativity workshop for students with autism.

Celeste Campos-Castillofrom the university’s sociology department, will use a $150,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to conduct academic research on the outcomes of creative technologies for students with autism in islands of brilliance.

Mark Fairbanks, co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit, said its foundation-level workshops have been running for about 10 years. But it will give the organization a chance to move beyond “a lot of great stories and anecdotal evidence,” he said on WPR’s “The Morning Show” recently.

The empirical research will be “a catalyst for us to have an even greater impact on the autism community based on what comes out of it,” Fairbanks said.

At Islands of Brilliance Core Workshops, students work one-on-one with mentors who guide them through projects using programs such as Adobe’s Photoshop and Illustrator, Procreate, and a 3D program called Blender.

Fairbanks said he got into this work because of his son, Harry, who was identified on the autism spectrum shortly before he turned 3.

We had the prognosis of all the things he wouldn’t be able to do, which we flat out refused to listen to or believe.,” he said.

Fairbanks said his wife, Margaret, does all the learning activities on their son’s favorite subject: Thomas the Tank Engine.

Once, when he was an art director in the advertising industry, Fairbanks said he gave Harry a five-minute introduction to Adobe Illustrator. Only 30 minutes later, Harry showed him a drawn picture of Percy, a green-colored character from Thomas the Tank Engine.

“He had used tools that I hadn’t shown him. He intuitively understood the software to create things he loves,” Fairbanks said. “So the light bulb goes off.”

Fairbanks has learned to meet children where they are. If they like Marvel characters or Pokemon, he said “accept that and learn more”.

At Islands of Brilliance, he said students can drive their projects through their own narrow and deep interests. Additionally, they try to match students with mentors who have similar interests.

Together they will take care of it“, he said. “That level of commitment is very high, and then they create things together. So there’s all this wonderful social interaction that happens through the creation of these projects.”

Fairbanks also said learning goes beyond programs alone. The workshops also allow students to develop social and emotional learning skills.

Social skills, which he says can be particularly challenging for students with autism, are built into the projects.

“They’re done,” he said. “They don’t even notice it.”

The workshops end with a presentation, which allows everyone to celebrate the creations. Fairbanks said students with autism aren’t celebrated often enough. They are not always recognized for what they can do.

Additionally, students can leave the studio with something tangible, whether it’s a poster they can put up on their wall or a GIF they can share on social media, he said.

Like many other institutions, Islands of Brilliance had to go virtual during the pandemic. But Fairbanks said virtual learning was more successful with them than some schools. They went from working on a screen together in person to working on a screen from different locations.

Using the chat feature also “levels the playing field” for students who aren’t as verbal as others around them, he said.

Officials will begin designing the research process in June, with implementation slated for the fall.