Autistry Studios in San Rafael, California, is a unique non-profit organization that helps teens and adults with Autism, Asperger’s, and other learning differences become successfully independent by building on each student’s interests and talents and creating a supportive community. Autistry’s founders, Janet Lawson and Daniel Swearingen, are the parents of Ian, a teenager with autism.
I caught up with Dan recently to learn more about the workshops they run and how they are putting their ShopBot tool to work in the program.
Dan spoke about the founding of the program. “About eight years ago, looking ahead for our son and what his life would be like after high school, we were very unhappy with the lack of appropriate services, work choices, and living situations available for Ian and others like him. So in small steps we started working to fill this gap in services.”
Dan (a former senior level computer programmer and manager) and Janet (also formerly in IT, and now a fulltime psychotherapist) were able to take over the 10,000 sq. ft. site of a former kitchen remodeling business to house the studios. Here they offer a variety of activities, from Build Stuff workshops (cue the ShopBot), Filmmaking workshops, Theater classes, and College Support workshops. Dan emphasized that there is no “one size fits all” approach to working with these teens. “Each person is unique in their learning differences and their interests. You have to begin with the individual and what he or she gravitates to.”
For example, a 15-year old named Lauren joined the program at about the time that the studio’s full-size ShopBot tool arrived (thanks to a grant from a local foundation). She was definitely “into” all things mechanical and making, so Dan asked Lauren and some other students to help him finish the assembly of the tool. Here’s some video of that exercise:
Since then Lauren has displayed an affinity for sketching in CAD (computer aided design), and making projects with the ShopBot. She’s been expanding her PC skills, and is on a path to successfully entering college.
Dan noted that the students are on the full range of the autistic spectrum from non-verbal or low verbal, to highly verbal children and teens. “We meet each person where they are and help them succeed. In terms of building with the Shopbot, we generally begin with a simple project of carving your name into a plaque. From there we’ll move on to relatively small woodworking projects, using plywood. We’ve found that the PartWorks program is a hit — it’s been quite easy for the kids to grasp and use.”
Dan also emphasized that the relative ease with which students can take their sketches into CAD software and then bring them into CAM (computer aided machining) software has meant they’ve raised the bar for the kinds of projects that they make — and this is tremendously meaningful to each student, inspiring confidence and providing great satisfaction.
When asked if he had been inspired by similar workshops, Dan mentioned that he thought that he and Janet had created something unique with Autistry Studios. “It’s really a new kind of program, because it’s so focused on the individual and what activities will best serve their interests. Now that we’re eight years into this ‘experiment’ we’re thinking of ways to formalize our processes so that we can share what we’ve learned with other communities.”