We build on capabilities

Islands of Brilliance (IOB) is a learning experience developed specifically for children and young adults on the autism spectrum.

Islands of Brilliance utilizes project-based learning which allows our students to grow their intrinsic capabilities and practice communication, increasing their likelihood of independence as adults. IOB design workshops create a space for students to explore creativity through the use of technology, during which they learn technical skills and grow confidence in critical social and peer-to-peer interactions. Students are matched one-to-one with mentors—design field professionals—which not only changes public perception of this disability, it also paves the way for future higher education and employment opportunities. An experienced, licensed special education teacher, with paraprofessional support, oversees all workshops.

During a typical design workshop, our “creative teams” work on a project—from initial sketches through building it using Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator—that results in a colorful 18″ x 24″ poster each student takes home. In addition to completing the class with an expanded knowledge of software design tools, our students leave with intangibles that are far broader and more important—a collaborative experience, sharing and presentation opportunities, conversation, friendship, and most of all a sense of accomplishment.

A few examples of design projects created by Islands of Brilliance students.


The Origin Story

It all began in a neurologist’s office…

The story of Islands of Brilliance began in a doctor’s office in the Spring of 2001, when program founders Mark and Margaret Fairbanks were given a three word prognosis for their son Harry: “Lower Your Expectations.” Harry had recently been diagnosed with autism, but rather than encouraging his parents neurologists told the couple that their 3 year old son “didn’t understand the difference between the beginning and end of a book, would not be ready for 1st grade, and don’t plan on him going to college.”

Like many parents of children identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Mark and Margaret refused to give up on Harry, and discovered that by reaching into his world and engaging with his interests, they were able to build a bridge between his world and their own. By focusing on Harry’s area of perseveration (a key characteristic of autism, referring to an individual’s devotion to a particular subject matter) along with encouraging Harry’s growing interest in and skilled use of technology, an idea was born.

Islands of Brilliance was developed as a pilot program in Fall 2012 with a simple yet groundbreaking premise: pair children with autism one-on-one with design professionals who would teach the students valuable software skills. The students would create projects based on their “subject matter expertise” and walk away from the class with new design capabilities, a sense of accomplishment and confidence in presenting their ideas in a group setting, plus a connection to their mentor as well as their fellow students.

Islands of Brilliance is now entering its 5th year and has grown considerably with chapters started in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Duluth, as well as workshops held in Portland and Chicago. The Islands of Brilliance team is continually amazed and inspired by the pure unadulterated creativity of their students, as well as the empathy and generosity of the creative community that makes it all possible.

Oh, and Harry Fairbanks? He just completed his first year at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Peck School of the Arts, making the first semester Dean’s List with a 3.866 GPA.

You can watch the full origin story of Islands of Brilliance presented by founder Mark Fairbanks at TEDxUWMilwaukee below.


Executive Team

margaretMargaret Fairbanks, Director of Education

In her role as Lead Teacher, Margaret goes to great lengths to ensure that students have a successful classroom experience. After reading through all applications, Margaret contacts parents and talks through the format of the class to make sure that any additional supports, such as providing a written or visual schedule, specific seating, scheduled break times, or other preferred items are in place for every class. She also discusses areas of sensory sensitivity so that students can focus on their projects and not on sensory challenges. This might include sitting away from the smell of coffee, asking parents to bring headphones, or even having students take sensory breaks using art therapy. During each class, Margaret leads circle time, circulates through the classroom to check on students and their progress, and steps in if she sees any signs of frustration. Additionally, Margaret leads share time at the end of class with the focus on making sure that each student leaves with a sense of pride and accomplishment.

In addition to her work with IOB, Margaret has been a special education teacher for the past 8 years after earning her Masters in Special Education from The University of Minnesota. She has worked at Whitefish Bay High School with students who have the most severe needs, in addition to wearing the hat of transition coordinator with the focus on life after high school for students with special needs. Prior to Whitefish Bay, Margaret worked at Milwaukee College Prep, an inner city Charter School. As her first official job in the area of special education, she worked with students from K-4 up to Grade 5 and learned what it meant to teach with love. Her work as a special education teacher truly began the day her son, Harry, was diagnosed with PDD-NOS, otherwise known as a label of a child with autism. That changed everything. She is now able to share the beauty that is our children on the spectrum with others who can also see their beauty.

Contact: margaret@islandsofbrilliance.org

markMark Fairbanks, Executive Director

Mark brings his background in visual and user-centered design to develop curriculum as well as the overall experience of Islands of Brilliance. With 25 years of experience working in advertising, design and digital agencies in Milwaukee and Minneapolis—not to mention work published in prestigious international award shows including Communication Arts and The One Show—his standing in the creative community is a great asset in recruiting both professionals and college students interested in becoming volunteers.

When not occupied with IOB, he finds meaning and art spending time on the flower gardens that surround the Fairbanks’ family home. His most cherished moments are around the dinner table with Margaret and their two boys, Charlie and Harry.


Contact: mark@islandsofbrilliance.org



Board of Directors

Board Chair

Kelly Scott, Attorney, Private-Practice

Vice Chair

Katie Crawford Madlung, Lake Bluff Elementary School


Margaret Fairbanks, Islands of Brilliance


Nydia Mauras-Jones, Odvant Creative


Elizabeth Drame, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Steve Farr, Purple Onion

Dave Hanneken, Hoffman York

Doug Johnson, BMO Harris Entertainment

Nick MacCudden, Majesty Mortgage

Cynthia Short, Translator LLC

Maria Lopez Vento, Bader Philanthropies


IoB is made possible in part by the generosity of the following organizations.


Corporate Support

414 Photography | 88.9 Radio Milwaukee | About Face | Ascedia | Big Shoes Network | Boelter + Lincoln | Brilliant DPI | C2 | Core Creative | CPI | Cramer Krasselt | Design Fugitives | EPIC Creative | Flannery’s | GE Healthcare | Gener8tor | GS Design | Hoffman York | Kohl’s | Kornit Digital | Milwaukee Brewing Co. | Milwaukee Coffee Peddlers | Plunkett Raysich Architects | Purple Onion | Quest CE | Serve | Stir | West Bend Mutual | Wonder Wonder Sound


Thank you to our local partners for their participation in our “Brilliant Benefits” volunteer rewards program:

Community Supporters

Thank you to the following organizations for partnering with us to help build our outstanding volunteer base in the creative and education community:

In the News

Read about what others are saying about IOB

88.9 Radio Milwaukee – Community Story Spotlight on Islands of Brilliance
mjs JS Online – Islands of Brilliance teaches creative skills for students with autism disorders
mjs JS Online – Wildly popular TEDx and inspirational messages come to UWM
TEDx Milwaukee – Founder Mark Fairbanks spoke at TEDX Milwaukee on September 27th, 2014.
The Growth Minded Podcast – Todd McClees interview with Islands of Brilliance Cofounder Mark Fairbanks
cpi2013-logo-header CPI Podcast – A Doctor Told Use to Lower Our Expectations…
MilwaukeeMag_logo_3501 Milwaukee Magazine – Live Music and Painting Make a Winning Duet