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New creative workshops for young autistic people coming to Northwoods this August

A training session for the Fellowship, another Islands of Brilliance program
A training session for the Fellowship, another Islands of Brilliance program

Islands of Brilliance is a Milwaukee-based nonprofit that teaches children and young adults on the autism spectrum creative skills.

This August, it’s offering three free animation workshopsin the Northwoods.

“Special interests” are serious, core passions that are often hailed as a hallmark of autism.

Dr. Kate Siekman is the Director of Learning and Outcomes for Islands of Brilliance, a Milwaukee- based nonprofit that offers creative programming to children and young adults on the autism spectrum.

She said that often, neurodivergent young people tell her that they’ve been told to stop talking about their special interests.

“And some of our folks who have really had certain therapies that have what's called “extincted”, or extinguished, their special interest topic area, will actually not want to talk about it. And when we first get them, they won't even want to share it, because they’re like ‘that’s something I’m not supposed to talk about,” said Dr. Siekman.

But suppressing special interests doesn’t actually seem to help autistic folks in the long run.

Dr. Siekman said that research has actually shown that fostering people’s special interests can lead to improvements in overall quality of life.

She pointed to a key study that found a strong positive relationship between special interests and improvements in young autistic people’s social, communication, emotional, sensory, and even fine motor skills.

“We find that parents are like, ‘whoa, my student would never pick up a pencil, they hate drawing and writing, but they'll do it if it's related to something they're excited about’. Kind of feels like a no brainer, but we still see that people are ‘extincting’ and not allowing, like, ‘let's not talk about that. That's off topic,’” said Dr. Siekman.

Islands of Brilliance measured key performance indicators of 25 students who had been working with them for a number of years through their Digital Academy and found 84% of participants had some type of work experience, when the national average is a lot lower at 29%.

64% of participants went on to attend post-secondary education, while the national average for autistic individuals is about a 35% attendance rate.

Their free animation programs have helped young people find community based around their interests, while developing skills and having genuine fun.

In three upcoming 90-minute workshops, creative experts from the nonprofit have partnered with local libraries and community centers to teach participants and their families how to create stop motion animations using iPads.

Woodzick is the statewide Outreach Manager for Islands of Brilliance.

“In the theater world but also in IOB we use the phrase ‘yes and’ a lot which is to say, tell us what your special interest is. We're not coming in here with a pre-formed idea of what this workshop needs to be. We really want to listen to you. We want to center your voice and special interests,” they said.

The workshops don’t require a formal diagnosis and they’re open to participants ages 6 and up.

In reflection journals, students continuously note that they make meaningful connections with other neurodivergent young people.

“There's a different social norm within neurodivergent communities that I've noticed where you kind of ‘you show me your special interest, and I'll show you mine, and we'll be excited about both of them together, even if they're completely different,’” said Woodzick.

On August 7th, there’s a workshop at the North Lakeland Discovery Center, and the following day, there’s a workshop at ArtStart.

Then, on the 9th, there’s the last workshop of the series at the T.B. Scott Free Library in Merrill.

Registration is free.

With programming around the state, their team, which is based in Milwaukee, notes that sometimes it’s hard to find the connectors and right people to broaden their reach in different, new communities.

That said, they hope that their special-interest based approach expands.

Hannah Davis-Reid is a WXPR Reporter.
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