My toughest challenge: Mark Fairbanks

Mark Fairbanks
Mark Fairbanks Credit: Jake Hill

Position: Co-founder and executive director
Organization: Islands of Brilliance
What it does: Islands of Brilliance is a learning experience developed specifically for children and young adults on the autism spectrum.
Career: Mark Fairbanks started his career in creative design while his wife, Margaret Fairbanks, was a professional actress. The couple founded Islands of Brilliance in 2012.

The challenge

When Mark and Margaret Fairbanks’ son Harry was diagnosed with autism, they were told to lower their expectations. The prognosis was he wouldn’t be prepared for first grade and he likely wouldn’t go to college, a neurologist told the couple in 2001.

“In that moment, while Marg and I agreed with the diagnosis, we were like, ‘How can you say that? This kid isn’t even three years old,’” Mark said. “That really solidified this almost defiance because I said, ‘He’ll be ready for first grade and we will determine what he’s capable of doing.’”

Mark Fairbanks had just started an advertising agency six months before Harry was diagnosed, while Margaret Fairbanks, an actress, was shooting a pilot episode for a TV series in Chicago.

“Now you’re faced with a lot of uncertainty with one of your children, so, not unlike when parents have a medical diagnosis that might be cancer, I think that what autism carries with it is that it’s a mystery. You don’t know where they are on the spectrum and you don’t know how they’re going to develop,” Mark said.

The resolution

While the Fairbanks were blindsided by the diagnosis, the couple realized their careers and personalities uniquely positioned them to raise a son with autism.

“There was a little of ‘this happens to other people’ type of thing,” Mark said. “But in retrospect, it happened to exactly the right people because we were able to, particularly Margaret, was able to connect with Harry on his own level. She went from being a professional actress to being an amazing special education teacher. For me, I went from being a creative director of an ad agency to essentially a creative director of an agency for kids with autism.”

The takeaway

As Mark and Margaret raised their son, they began to understand what worked and what made him progress socially and academically. The couple wanted to share their success with others, which was the genesis for Islands of Brilliance.

“When we had the idea, I had no idea of the depth of the experience and how it affects people and the richness of the relationships that were built,” Mark said. “I thought it was something special, but I never imagined that it was going to be… I don’t even think about the scale of it. It’s just how profound it’s been in ways that I couldn’t, you just can’t imagine. How it’s grown and the ripple effects of it are unreal.”

Harry is now a senior at the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin where he recently completed a project that explores how health care practitioners can better advocate for and interact with people who are neuro-diverse.

“What he’s doing now is just stuff that blows me away,” Mark said. “We’re really proud of his own individual accomplishments, but his story has been life-changing for so many families with kids in the community. The fact that he has inspired this program and all of these kids, families and the volunteer community as well, it’s incredible.”

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