C.J. Jackson, 10, of Milwaukee smiles after completing an exercise as part of the Islands of Brilliance program at Discovery World in Milwaukee.
Program gives children career skills in multimedia, print.
Enter C.J Jackson’s world and you’ll find a lot of Mario Kart. The 10-year-old has been fixated on the go-kart style racing video game for years.
For Gabe Hailer, 10, it’s elevators. Sometimes when he worked on his graphic illustration of elevator levels at Discovery World this spring, he took breaks from class to go ride one for a while, up and down, up and down.
C.J. and Gabe are part of an increasing number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, a group of neural development disorders characterized by repetitive behaviors and difficulty communicating and interacting socially.
Some parents struggle to imagine a future where their child with autism disorders will be able to function independently and pursue a career. And at present, there’s a dearth of programming that caters specifically to their children’s needs.
With intelligences in splinter areas, children on the spectrum can feel out-of-place in programs for kids with significant physical or cognitive disabilities. But their social challenges make it equally difficult to thrive in programs for traditionally developing youth.
The experimental Sunday morning academy for children with autism spectrum disorders such as Asperger’s syndrome fosters creativity through technology while teaching basic skills in programs such as Illustrator or Photoshop. Each child with autism is paired with a professional mentor from Milwaukee’s creative community, who volunteer their time for a few hours on five Sundays to help work with the child on a project.
A key feature of the program: having each child’s illustration, design, comic or animation focus on one of his interest areas.
“This is teaching skills that are marketable,” said Mandy Chasteen, Gabe Hailer’s mom. “Gabe struggles in art class in school because there are so many variables. Here he knows exactly what to do, and he can control it better.”
The Sunday lab academy was conceived by Mark Fairbanks, the co-founder and chief aesthetic officer of Translator, a brand design agency in the Third Ward that hosts open-house style idea-share labs on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Fairbanks and the Translator team partnered with Discovery World for lab space. They developed a curriculum for two tracks for participants to explore: multimedia or print.
Fairbanks’ wife, Margaret Fairbanks, is a special education teacher who helped design the curriculum. They engaged volunteer paraprofessional educators to help the student-mentor teams. Professional mentors came from their connections in the design industry.
“The way the creative community gives back is that they do pro bono ads to win awards,” Mark Fairbanks said. “We see this as a much better way to be creatively involved in a cause that actually connects with children, regardless of whether they go on to be a designer or developer. They get to engage with not only like peers, but also a mentor who might be able to unlock an area of potential.”
Islands started small with a handful of students and mentors in the first class in fall 2012. The spring’s session that just finished included 11 students between the ages of 9 and 14, paired with 11 mentors.
At the end of the five weeks, the students and their mentors present their work during a share session.
The program is free so far. The Translator team and Discovery World would like to see it grow, but they’re intent on keeping it highly personalized for each child and mentor.
Few models exist for how to design meaningful programming for children on the spectrum. Given their social difficulties, it can be hard to engage the children in an activity adults prefer them to work on, rather than on one the child prefers.
Tim Kabara, center director for the Maplegrove Treatment Center, a West Allis company that creates year-round and summer programming for kids and adults with autism spectrum disorders,said independent programming has not kept pace with the number of new diagnoses.
“We started nine years ago and we found the benefits of the groups being homogenous,” Kabara said. “They feel more comfortable, and they’re more likely to have similar interests. We found that’s a huge step toward getting them to let their hair down and be willing to engage in an activity.”
Islands of Brilliance has personal roots. The Fairbankses have a 14-year-old son, Harry, who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age 3.
One day, Harry peered over his father’s shoulder while Mark was working in Illustrator.
Mark showed him a few basic concepts, then left Harry to play around in the program. Thirty minutes later, he said, his son had drawn Thomas the Tank Engine — a cartoon the boy loved — using the program’s more sophisticated features.
“He had figured out how to use the pen tool and apply colors and gradients, things I had not shown him,” Mark Fairbanks said during a presentation about Islands of Brilliance. “In a digital age, he can contribute content and make connections for the rest of his life.”
During the most recent Islands session, Harry worked with Justin Hutter, a web designer, to develop a comic series and website.
The spring Islands session wrapped up May 19, and the nature and range of the children’s disabilities makes for a nontraditional share session.
One student presented his poster by holding the illustration directly in front of his face as he spoke, muffling his voice and obscuring his head.
Another jumped up from the audience and started pointing things out on the other child’s work.
When it was C.J. Jackson’s turn, he was so excited to show off the Mario Kart storyboard he created with mentor Simmi Urbanek that he read each and every word on the board, tracing his pointer finger over the letters as he went.
Instead of applause, which unsettles some children on the spectrum, audience members slapped their thighs in encouragement.
Kimlon Jackson, said her son was still nonverbal six months ago. When he was 3 1/2, she said, he only knew five words.
“The program combines CJ’s passion for design in an environment that understands his social challenges, and in a way that could lead to gainful employment in the future,” Kimlon Jackson said. “It’s like a breath of fresh air.”