Islands of Brilliance, UWM receive funding to establish research lab focused on neurodiversity and creativity

Islands of Brilliance team at work.
Islands of Brilliance team at work.

Last updated on January 19th, 2022 at 12:05 pm

Islands of Brilliance and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee have received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts to establish a new research lab that will study the impact of creativity and creative technologies on people with autism.

The Milwaukee-based nonprofit organization and its UWM partners learned late last year they were awarded an initial $150,000 NEA grant, which is renewable for up to five years, and they plan to begin their research this year.

Mark Fairbanks, co-founder and executive director of IoB, said the grant helps put a national spotlight on the interventions and strategies IoB has found success using over the past decade. He and his wife, Margaret Fairbanks, founded the organization in 2012 to provide out-of-school learning and social engagement opportunities for neurodiverse students with a focus on STEM, art and design. Through its tech and design workshops, students learn not only technical skills, but also grow confidence in social and peer-to-peer interactions.

One of the organization’s more visible projects, IoB students helped design a virtual reality program that Light the Hoan organizers used to promote and sell the project.

Having academic research to back up its strategies could help IoB grow its reach and possibly net additional funding from national foundations, Fairbanks said.

“My feeling was we had something really unique and special we were doing, we had lots of anecdotal evidence of its efficacy,” he said. “But until we got the academic published research, that was going to be the thing that would be the rocket fuel to help us.”

Fairbanks is partnering with Nathaniel Stern, a UWM professor and director of the UWM Startup Challenge, and UWM associate professor of sociology Celeste Campos-Castillo on the research lab. Fairbanks also serves as entrepreneur-in-residence at UWM.

Fairbanks said he had braced himself for being denied the NEA funding on IoB’s first try, but was elated to learn in November the team had won it.

“I’m an optimist, so I always like our chances,” he said. “I felt the partnership on multiple levels is really strong. … And the NEA is really excited about it. Overall, the arts and how they impact disability is an initiative of theirs, and they’re very interested in autism and neurodiversity.”

Fairbanks shared his goal of establishing the “Brilliant Research Lab for Neurodiverse Creativity” in BizTimes’ special “25 Big Ideas for Milwaukee’s Future” section last spring.

The grant will fund Stern and Campos-Castillo’s involvement in the research program, as well as graduate and undergrad research assistants and technology to support the project.

Fairbanks said he is hopeful the grant will be renewed for the entire five-year period.

“Then our goal is to make it sustainable after that as a national, possibly global, center for research around arts, creativity and neurodiversity,” he said. “… My hope would be that, based on this, we would get help as it relates to growing and scaling our operations and efforts so that this research will lead to this positively impacting the most students and families as possible across the country.”

Up until now, the hundreds of students IoB has engaged have largely been from southeastern Wisconsin.

The dissemination of IoB’s strategies could take various forms beyond published research in academic journals, Fairbanks said, including documentary film, exhibits or summits.

Beyond the autism community, Fairbanks said the grant also helps bolster support for Wisconsin’s wider arts and culture sector.

“It’s about how arts and creativity impacts public health. That’s a big deal for the Milwaukee arts community as a whole,” he said. “From an arts and culture perspective, the reason why funding is so important — I think we’ve all found this out during the pandemic. What have we turned to? We’ve turned to movies and Netflix, and music and cooking and culinary and art as a means for finding meaning and purpose. … This isn’t just a big win for autism and Islands of Brilliance and UWM; it’s a big win for the arts and culture sector in Milwaukee that the NEA is looking at this.”

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