In their new book Share the Road: The Journey to Autistry, Janet Lawson and Dan Swearingen generously map out how they created a successful and thriving program that incorporates project-based learning and personal interest into learning needed life skills. The authors have written an excellent and detailed guide on how they grew their program from a project-led social group of four in their home, to eight-week project-based therapy workshops, to a day program, to a Maker Incubator. I highly recommend this book to anyone parenting a neurodivergent/autistic person, and professionals, educators, and students.
When I first heard about Autistry Studios, my son Jeremy and I were writing A Full Life With Autism (Macmillan). I was researching existing programs for autistic teens and adults. Autistry Studios was one of the most innovative and successful initiatives I had heard about. Autistry was founded about 15 years ago, but the journey to Autistry started long before. The authors, Janet and Dan, are parents to Ian, now a young man. The short story version would be to say that Ian was the impetus for Autistry Studios. But leaving it at that would not do credit to the co-founders of Autistry Studios. The combination of Janet and Dan’s unique backgrounds, parenting style, presumption of competence, and project-based learning is what makes Autistry such a success.
Janet spent her twenties studying acting, and co-founded a theatre group in free-wheeling Netherlands of the 70’s and developed an addiction to tobacco alcohol and hashish. After years of traveling, various theatre and film experiences, and graduating from UC Berkeley, Janet spent her thirties getting clean and sober. Eventually she lead Alateen meetings, an off-shoot of Al-Anon, created to support young people affected by alcoholism in the family.These life experiences in acting and supporting young people helped shape the psychotherapist and mother she became. Eventually Janet went back to University to pursue a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology, and became a licensed marriage and family therapist.
As a teenager, Dan learned model building, electronics, carpentry, and auto mechanics. He studied physics in college and joined the US Marine Corps. He had exceptional skills in some areas, and poor skills in others. Eventually he flunked out of college, lost all rank in the service. He eventually returned to college earning a undergrad degree in physics, a master’s degree, and worked toward a degree in astrophysics. Then there was a new wave of tech startups using the Internet, that would later be known as the Dot-Com boom. Dan was successful during that time in translating customer ideas into workable software and became a team leader, a technical manager, and manager of programmers.
Like many parents of autistic children, Dan realized he was autistic after his son Ian was diagnosed with autism. While researching about autism to help their son Ian, he read Temple Grandin’s first book, Thinking in Pictures. In reading about Temple visualizing fenced pathways designs that guide cattle smoothly, Dan realized that his design process was similar: He was often at a loss of words for describing the detailed designs he has imagined.
Together with their life experiences, education, personal growth, and parenting style, Janet and Dan had the ideal skill set—not only to parent and teach their autistic son Ian, but to create Autistry Studios, and grow it to the success it is today.
After Ian was diagnosed, Janet and Dan accepted that Ian was different, and embraced his world. They found ways to communicate and build a bridge between his world and theirs. This philosophy brought many rewards. At the time, Ian was mainstreamed part time in a fourth grade class, and the class was studying the Gold Rush. And history is a hard concept to teach without language. At the time, Ian loved the Arthur the Aardvark series of books. Janet and Dan had the idea to work with Ian to make an Arthur adventure about the Gold Rush. They took well-known Gold Rush photos, and Ian traced those and substituted Arthur characters for the people in the photos. Ian understood the story because he knew the characters—they were a part of his world.
Ian was proud of his resulting project, the teacher loved it. There were unexpected positive side effects: other teachers, students, and parents looked at Ian’s project with delight during Open House. They could all see Ian’s humor and Intelligence . In the end, the biggest take away was that the project created a huge change in the way people saw Ian.
Meanwhile Janet was studying, doing the required work to become a licensed marriage and family therapist. At the time she was one of the few therapists (in training or licensed) to have experience with autism, and many autistic students were referred to her. Students that Janet met in her counseling office eventually became the first clients of Autistry Studios. She found that, like for her son, it was easier to connect with the student via the creative mode the child was interested in.
The first group was created through a request from an insistent parent who was searching for a support group for girls. Her daughter Carrie did not fit into girl scouts or social skills therapy. At that time Janet also had a young woman, Sarah, as a client. Sarah had difficulty describing emotion, and Janet realized after giving her some paper and colored pencils (Sarah had asked if she could draw) that when she was engaged in drawing the anime-style fairies she enjoyed, she was able to communicate and express her feelings.
Carrie and Sarah were soon both communicating an emotional range of expressions through their artwork, and Janet wanted them to take the challenge of taking their drawings to the next level: 3D. This was not possible in her small office, which is how they ended up in Janet’s and Dan’s home.
This experience was to become a beacon of light—showing Janet and Dan what was possible when they
realized that the educational options for Ian after high school were devastating. Ian would need significant support after high school, and they wanted him to continue to develop. The options they were shown were focused on stable care or recreational activities, so they started their new venture: the Barn project, and their first Build Stuff Group with just four students in Sept 2008. This first workshop helped them identify their personal core values, and those of their program. Small groups, high mentor/student ratio, a good cohort mix, and meals were the initial features that stood out as necessary components of this group.
Share the Road is informative, interesting, and easy to read, as each chapter unveils a core value that kept Janet and Dan on track. For example, Chapter 7 is all about Core #7 : respect and support the many aspects of independence. Once they were able to be licensed for funding by their local Regional Center (you’ll learn how they did that in Chapter 6) they realized the day program model was the best option.
However, they were adamant about not being just a recreational program. Autistry’s overarching goal is to build independent adults. The “secret sauce” for independence identified the key ingredients needed, as the abilities to: challenge yourself, to educate yourself, to take control of yourself, to regulate yourself, to find sustainable engagement with your community. Chapter 7 beautifully illustrates each of those attributes by examples of actual participants in their program.
In Chapter 12 Janet and Dan describe the Maker Incubator, the latest development of Autistry. (Core #12: accept that each person lives their own reality). Janet and Dan created Autistry studios because they found that whether a person is autistic or neurotypical, it is imperative to identify which obstacles can be overcome, and wrestle with them. For them, this means raising the bar, and believing in the dignity of risk.
Autistry Studios is an incredible program for reasons already identified above. The use of mentors, the ability to adapt their program to different learning styles, and the connection with the community to provide vocational and educational opportunities are more reasons. Most importantly, Janet and Dan have enough respect for the participants to provide the individualized supports they need to thrive. And that has made all the difference!