The magic of Autistry Studios – projects make good therapy

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“Dignity of risk means if I give you a saw I trust that you will be safe with that saw. We allow the students to take risks.” Janet Lawson, Founder Autistry Studios

Autistry Studios is in a 10,000 square-foot warehouse in San Rafael, California

Autistry Studios is situated in a 10,000 square foot warehouse in an industrial zone in San Rafael. It’s innocuous from the outside appearing as blank and uninviting as any other building in the area. And yet upon entering, one finds something that any parent would call ‘magical.’ Students, all on the autism spectrum, are engaged in projects of their own design. The high ceilings and wide room is filled with state-of-the-art machinery, computers, models the students have made, and the tables are filled with art, sewing, woodworking, and industrial tools and supplies. Anything a young person could imagine can be created here. Some of the students are working by themselves; others are with a partner or an assistant.

Janet Lawson and her husband, Dan, are facilitating the projects.

“This is my highest functioning class,” Janet says. The class is composed of all boys, ranging in age from 18 to 23. The only females in the warehouse, besides Janet, are three young women who are assisting the students with their projects. I talk to one of the assistants who says she is studying behavioral therapy and wants to make a career working with the autistic population.

Janet tells me she has all ranges of functioning levels in students she works with.

“We meet the student at whatever level they are at.”

The projects are impressive. Janet shows me a picture of a teardrop trailer that her son Ian, 17, is creating.

Picture of Teardrop trailer that Ian wants to create

At this stage it is a full-scale platform on the trailer. One can see that Ian’s aspirations are high. When you look around the room and see all that they have created, one can only imagine how close this model will be to the real thing.

Ian's beginning of the tear drop trailer

“What we do here, is called Project Based Therapy,” Janet says picking up what appears to be a space helmet that is in progress.

Janet Lawson with helmet

“Chris who is 13 years old created the prototype for this with the software Pepakura,” Janet says. Pepakura is a 3-D modeling program.

Helmet project in progress by 13-year old student at Autistry Studios

Janet and her husband Dan Swearinger are certainly knowledgeable about software. Dan is an astro-physicist who had a successful career as an Engineering Director for a large toy company before leaving his job to devote his energies to Autistry Studios. Janet in a previous career was a systems analyst. She was also a film editor which is evidenced by the upstairs computer with editing software. She talks about her son Ian, 17, who is sitting on the couch watching the students work.

“Ian’s obsession is moving out,” she says directing me to an art box that Ian has created complete with an airplane, boat, map and hawaiian girls – all items that are related to his eventual move.

Ian's box he created about his move out from home

“His fantasy is to live in an apartment warehouse like the one in Flash Dance. He is already thinking of how he will decorate it.”

I talk to Ian who is a Junior in High School and recently received his brown belt in Tae Kwon Do. Janet takes down a hamburger that Ian created and I snap this picture.

Janet son's Ian with giant hamburger he created

“Ian is the impetus behind Autistry. We saw a need for a vocational and therapeutic program for teens and adults on the autism spectrum that was not being addressed.”

After completing her MFT in 2005, Janet opened a counseling practice with a primary focus on children and teens.

“I didn’t find talk therapy to be very beneficial for the teens. Hands-on projects seem to work better. The students need to see that their creations may not live up to their expectations. Through creating these projects they learn self-regulation and to deal with the frustrations of things not going the way they would always like.”

Janet seems amazed at the growth of her program.

“We started this project in our backyard five years ago with four students. Three years later we had expanded into this warehouse. We now have close to 50 students. Our oldest student is 42.”

She tells me of a contract that they have recently signed with two schools who were impressed with the Autistry program.

Janet walks me over to the dining area which is composed of three tables set in a U-shape all with tablecloths.

This is where the students have a meal together and work on social skills

“This is where the students eat. We have a community meal and they all participate by setting and clearing the table. This is where we focus on social skills.”

“My husband and I are writing a book about our theories,” she says. We believe in two primary components – independence and the dignity of risk.”

I ask her what that means.

“Dignity of risk means if I give you a saw I trust that you will be safe with that saw. We allow the students to take risks.”

Janet handed me a copy of a book written and illustrated by one of her students, Owen Bragg. It is called “Ketinga The Cat.” The book was produced by Autistry Studios in partnership with SLM Creative Design.

In the back of the book, it describes the Autistry Studio Model and Project-Based Therapy which was developed to:

  • Leverage strengths and build upon interests
  • Expand imagination
  • Discover personal narrative
  • Build personal identity
  • Learn problem-solving skills and develop a sense of resiliency
  • Learn how to self-regulate
  • Master effective behavior and communication
  • Build relationships within a natural setting

Wow, isn’t that what we want for all our children?

As part of my tour I am allowed to talk to students who are participating about their various projects. I take a picture of Ian, 23, and his nifty sword and Danny, 20, with his shield. Ian had to learn how to sew to make his sword. Janet tells me she has two sewing machines in the studio.

Ian with his swords and Danny with his shields they created at the studio

Ross, 20, talks about the Aztec sword he is making. Ross is a history buff and tells me a little about Aztec history.

Ross, a history buff, talking about his Aztec sword

At another table Alex and Jack are composing a graphic novel/comic book. They have a discussion about whether it is a graphic novel or a comic. Alex takes out the dictionary and reads the definition for “graphic novel.” They decide that they are creating a hybrid of the two genres. Both of these students are in college. Alex is enrolled at the College of Marin working on his A.A. degree and Jack attends San Jose State. He is interested in a career in animation and illustration.

Jack and Alex are creating a graphic novel/comic book

Janet shows me the impressive Shop-Bot, a robotic router that allows students to scan a model on a computer and traces it on a form to be cut. She says after they master this equipment, their next purchase will be a laser cutter and then a 3-D printer.

State of the art technology - Shop bot connected to a computer

And yes, they do traditional art here as well and even have a small art gallery.

Jonathon's Islanumbers - each character relates to a number

Before I leave I’m treated to one student’s puppets of Rush Limbaugh.

Rush Limbaugh with oxytocin - Yes, people with autism do have a sense of humor

As I leave, a little overwhelmed, Janet says we need to collaborate on an art exhibit in the Bay Area.I think collaboration with Autistry Studios would be a very good thing.

To see more art boxes go here.

See the film The Deadly Diamond created by Autistry students here. This is a film noir and highly entertaining.

1 Comment

  • What an impressive program, Debra! Dan and Janet Lawson seem like such interesting people and their program..Wow! Thank you for your well-written article and introducing this program to us. I do wish this sort of thing was available to all the “Ians” in the world! Knowing that this exists somewhere, gives hope to all of us and also points a beam of light in the direction we, as a society, must go.

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