Islands of Brilliance: How Thomas the Tank Engine can help fight autism
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Autism is a far-ranging and often misunderstood disorder that affects 1 in every 88 children in the U.S. Limitations are placed upon these kids, and treatment can have varied results, as each child has very unique needs.
An advertising agency might be the most unlikely place to find some hope and therapy. But Mark Fairbanks, a partner at Translator in Milwaukee’s Third Ward, has a very personal connection. In collaboration with the team at Discovery World, Mark has recruited community volunteers to work with autistic children to foster creativity through the use of software and technology. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Fairbanks on his involvement, his goals, and the fundraiser happening at Translator Sunday, November 4.
The A.V. Club: What is Islands of Brilliance?
Mark Fairbanks: Islands of Brilliance is a pilot program developed specifically for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Each student is matched with a creative mentor who helps them sketch out a story, and then make it come to life using Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop.
AVC: How did you and Translator arrive at the idea?
MF: My son Harry was diagnosed with autism just before the age of three. The idea for Islands is very much based on my wife Margaret’s and my experience raising him. Margaret made some breakthroughs with Harry when he was very young. His subject of perseverance (a common trait in autism) was Thomas the Tank Engine. One day Margaret talked directly to a Thomas the Tank Engine toy as if it were human. Harry immediately responded to this. What she found out is that if she entered his world, it was easier to get him to engage in ours.
Around the age of nine, Harry became interested in what I was doing on my laptop. I was working in Adobe Illustrator and he asked if he could try it. I spent some time showing him how to do a few things and left him alone to create. Thirty minutes later, he said, “Dad, come look what I’ve done.” He had drawn a bunch of the Thomas the Tank Engine characters—and he had figured out tools I hadn’t shown him. The drawings were crude, but the willingness to explore his creativity through software got me thinking. Then the dots began to connect: social outlet + creative mentor + technology + focus on area of interest. That’s basically what Islands of Brilliance is.
At Translator, we really believe we can apply our thinking and creative problem solving skills towards anything, including launching a program that focuses on special education. Getting it going has been a struggle of what area to focus on first. Fund raising? Equipment? Curriculum? We were fortunate enough to meet with Paul Krajniak and Meghan Forseth at Discovery World. They had the space, the equipment, and all of the software.
AVC: How is Harry doing?
MF: When Harry was first diagnosed, the neurologists painted a very bleak picture. They basically told us to forget about him going to college. We were pretty defiant. There was no way we would allow a pair of doctors, with limited knowledge of our son, to shackle our thinking of what he was capable of.
Harry is a freshman in high school now, completely mainstreamed, and has a B average. That is a direct result of early intervention, wonderful teachers, and a lot of hard work. There were many dark days, and in no way was it an easy path. But the path is always there, if you are just willing to believe in it.
It obviously makes me question the limitations we place on people. Why, as humans, do we do that? I have a personal belief, and it is one we have applied to how we look at children with autism and the Islands of Brilliance program: To be creative is to know no limitations, only unknown possibilities.
AVC: How are the sessions going so far?
MF: We had our first class on Sunday, October 28. It was amazing. I had envisioned the sessions as teaching software skills. What I witnessed was an incredible connection between the students and mentors. I saw the unbridled creativity in these kids, all sorts of sketching, collaboration, and improvisation. It was incredibly inspiring. We are truly blessed with a great group of mentors. I’m starting to see a much bigger picture then what we originally started with.
Each student is working on bringing a story to life. The stories are based on their particular area of interest—so we have stories about Hogwarts, Jake And The Neverland Pirates, Super Mario, even Seinfeld. Over the course of the four-week program using Illustrator and Photoshop, the student and mentor will create an 18” x 24” poster of the story in a comic book frame type format.
AVC: You have a benefit on November 4. What can we expect?
MF: Honestly, a lot of fun. There won’t be any self-important speeches. We’ll have photos from the first two sessions, and some info on the program. The night really is about celebrating creativity and limitless possibilities, and The Ballroom Thieves are the perfect band for this. I got a chance to see them recently during The Yellow Phone Music Conference, and was just blown away. It’s a chance to see a band that’s going to be really big while they’re still in their early stages. We think The Thieves and Islands have a lot in common in that regard.
(The Islands of Brilliance benefit concert is this Sunday, November 4, at Translator’s space, 415 E. Menomonee St., from 6-9 p.m. Tickets are $20, and include a performance from Boston’s The Ballroom Theives, and a variety of Milwaukee Brewing Company products.)