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How Mentorship & Creativity Help People With Autism Disorders Find Fulfilling Jobs

courtesy Islands of Brilliance
A mentor at work with an Islands of Brilliance student.

Unemployment numbers have reached historic lows in many places in Wisconsin, though income growth has not always kept pace.

However, even with what economists would term “full employment,” there are some people who still find it hard to find work. That’s the case with adults with autism spectrum disorders. Studies indicate around 90 percent of people on the spectrum in the Milwaukee area are unemployed or underemployed.

But one local organization is trying to change that dynamic by tapping into some of the strengths that individuals on the autism spectrum possess. Islands of Brilliance was borne out of the autism diagnosis that Mark and Margaret Fairbanks received when their son was not quite 3-years-old. The couple was told to keep their expectations low for academic achievement.

But as he got older, they watched his keen interest in particular subject areas and found that he learned and stayed engaged when his work involved those subjects. Working from that model, Islands of Brilliance pairs mentors in creative fields with young people with autism spectrum disorders. 

It’s a project that Mark Fairbanks says has benefits both to the young people, and those who mentor them.  “I think our volunteers learn,” he says. “We select them for empathy and patience  — but it builds more of those skills that then spill back over into their place of work. [That’s] hugely valuable to the community. And I’ve heard this from different leaders at agencies and corporate departments that that’s the case.”