.Autistry Studios Creates Community for Autistic Adults

My wonderfully offbeat friend, Ken Pontac, has told me for a dozen years about a magical place in San Rafael called Autistry Studios. Last week, I finally visited. Pontac, who recently began working there, wasn’t kidding.

Somehow, it seems too mild to say that I was absolutely enchanted by every person I met and delighted by each piece of art I saw. Autistry Studios feels alive, a bustling beehive of gifted students and mentors working together—not just to create artwork, but also to empower young autistic adults to stretch and reach their potential.

I hesitate to share the stats and clinical definition for autism because at Autistry, it’s a footnote. But to offer some perspective, about one in 36 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Autism is a neurological and developmental condition that affects social interactions, communication, learning and behavior.

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Yet, the purpose of Autistry Studios, a nonprofit, isn’t to keep students occupied with busy work to pass the time. As Autistry co-founder Janet Lawson likes to say, “We don’t make macaroni art here.”

Indeed, they don’t.

A retail store at the downtown studios, the Autistry Makers Market, sells the students’ original artwork. One collection includes beautiful hand-turned wood pens possessing the perfect weight and feel for writing a long letter. Captivating hand-sewn puppets—decked out in jaunty hats and whimsical outfits—look like they deserve starring roles in the next Muppet movie. Wall clocks, themed coasters and greeting cards with sweet, hilarious and even dark sentiments are just a few of the other items found in the store.

Chloe, a student at Autistry Studios, is comfortable working with large equipment to help create her artwork.

Autistry also offers theater and animation programs, as well as reading, writing and math remedial classes to give students what Lawson calls “the dignity of risk.” The education, vocation and life skills programs are designed to help an individual achieve their highest level of independence. 

“We challenge them,” Lawson says. “If you can draw, can you paint? If you can paint, can you sculpt? If you can sculpt, can you make that move into animation?” 

Pontac mentors the students in animation and storytelling, seeing his role as identifying their superpowers. An expert in the field, Pontac spent the last four decades writing for classic shows including Gumby, Arthur, Woody Woodpecker and Happy Tree Friends, to name just a few.

Autistry students work on animation projects using the Story Xperiential platform, which follows Pixar’s process. It requires working on computers, drawing and writing.

“My interaction is helping them ferret out their ideas,” Pontac says. “I’ll point out that maybe a close-up would be good here. Or this needs perspective. If a student wants a character posed at a certain angle, I’ll take a picture with my camera of the student posed like that. They can copy the picture and be on their way.”

Pontac loves sharing the story of a young autistic man brought to Autistry Studios by his special education teacher. Courtney, according to the teacher, would never be able to read or write. Soon enough, with Pontac’s spelling help, Courtney was writing his own animated story. Today, his trajectory is pointed sky high.

Partnerships with businesses and community groups equip students with new skills. Double Rainbow operates a coffee house at Autistry Studios and trains students in the art and science of all things java and tea. And here’s a scoop—Autistry will soon be the new home of Marin’s favorite Double Rainbow Ice Cream shop.

Baristas Ian (left) and Tenaya stir up java masterpieces at the Double Rainbow Cafe inside Autistry Studios in downtown San Rafael.

An alliance between the Marin Shakespeare Company and the Autistry Drama Group recently burst onto the stage. On April 26, they’re presenting Dorothy’s Adventures in Oz. Again, this isn’t a “macaroni” production, and tickets are a hot commodity.

Autistry’s theater director, Tim Flavin, was the first American to win a prestigious Olivier Award, England’s equivalent of the Tony Awards—and he went on to take home three more of the British statues.

Theater, too, provides invaluable opportunities for students to hone their abilities. Scripts must be read and memorized. Physical routines involve coordination. And participating in a production necessitates working with other people.

“We help individuals create identity,” Lawson says. “Many autistic students haven’t had the identity-building experiences that one usually has in high school. Like being part of a sports team or a drama team—anything that has to do with being with other students and testing your personality against theirs. That’s how you build.”

In 2008, Autistry was born of necessity, established by Lawson and her then-husband, Dan Swearingen, in their backyard. Their son, Ian, is autistic, also known as neurodivergent.

“Neurodivergent,” says Lawson. “I love the phrase because it’s not shaming. It just says, ‘I’m wired differently.’”

When Ian was diagnosed as a young child, Lawson, a licensed therapist, and Swearingen, an astrophysicist and engineer, set out to learn everything they could about the condition.

Through that process, the couple was presented with a new revelation. Lawson saw tears running down Swearingen’s face while he read a book about autism by Temple Grandin, a well-known college professor and author who is neurodivergent.

“He said, ‘I don’t know about Ian, but this is me,’” Lawson recalls. “And that was a real sea change right there because it explained so much of his life and his childhood.”

During Ian’s school years, Lawson and Swearingen grew concerned that the secluded special education classes, laser focused on keeping children safe, stymied development.

“They have no expectation that these students can challenge themselves, grow further and excel,” Lawson says. “Partly because they don’t want them to be hurt, be disappointed or fail. But if you don’t have an opportunity to fail, you also have no opportunity to succeed.”

The couple couldn’t find programs after high school that would help Ian and people like him prepare for college, employment and independent living. Lawson and Swearingen felt forced to take matters into their own hands and opened Autistry Studios.

Currently, there are 42 students and 26 staff members, some of whom are former students. About 15 people are on a waiting list, a testament to the success of Autistry’s methods.

Some students go on to community college. A few obtain bachelor’s degrees.

“But for the majority of our students, succeeding in community college for several semesters is sufficient to give them the confidence and increased executive functioning that enables them to live with minimal in-home support,” Lawson says.

Although Autistry Studios teaches students practical skills and how to interact in the workplace, finding employment for those who are able to take that step can be difficult. Successful placement primarily depends on the employer’s understanding and acceptance, according to Lawson. Autistry works with students through the interview and hiring process, remaining involved to help the employee and employer adjust to the new culture.

On average, people stay in Autistry’s programs for three years, but some have remained for more than a decade. Those who have been in the workshops for years help those young people just starting out, allowing the magic of Autistry Studios to continue.

“There’s a great need, and that’s why we plan on expanding,” Lawson says. “Autistry has become not just a program, but a productive and supportive community.”

For tickets to Autistry Studios’ theater production of ‘Dorothy’s Adventures in Oz,’ click here.

Nikki Silverstein
Nikki Silverstein is an award-winning journalist who has written for the Pacific Sun since 2005. She escaped Florida after college and now lives in Sausalito with her Chiweenie and an assortment of foster dogs. Send news tips to [email protected].

9 COMMENTS

  1. Oh, my, you captured the essence of Autistry Studios! My son is one of the now staff, then students, that benefited greatly from their magic. Their insight and amazing support literally saved our son and family. He is now living independently, thanks to their help. Thanks for a great article!

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  2. My son has greatly benefitted from this program – or as he says, “My other family.” They have opened up worlds for him. He absolutely loves it!

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  3. Great article! Autistry is alive with belief in possibilities combined with the willingness time and again to patiently learn alongside students how to move from ideas to tangible creations – stories, drawings, structures, videos, games – and to celebrate together!

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  4. Very sweet & cool! Autistry is affording creative avenues to a faction of our young adults(mainly) who have otherwise been abandoned by our society. Very brave and wonderful work by Janet Lawson and her team! Bravo!! ❤️👍🏻🎶☮️

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  5. Our daughter Eva has been thriving in the Autistry Studios environment of engaging supportive relationships, creative expression and enhanced living skills.
    She refers to this community as her “Autistry family.” Eva is proud of her off site job, and is currently blooming forth into the next level of her Theatrical expression with the inspiration of Tim’s exceptional skills and devotion.
    Autistry is an insightful and effective response that cultivates the potential and possibilities within this dynamic facet of our community.

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  6. The Autistry program is an insightful and effective response that cultivates the potential and possibilities within this dynamic facet of our community.
    With much appreciation to the devoted faculty and staff.

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  7. Our daughter Eva is thriving within the Autistry environment. The engaged and supportive relationships, development of work and living skills, and creative self expression enhances who is she is and her sense of self. She is currently taking her theatrical skills to the next level with the inspirational encouragement of Tim and the drama staff.

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  8. So blessed that our son is a part of this amazing program. Autistry supports his creativity and independence. We are lucky to have this resource in our backyard.

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  9. Autistry Studios is the gift we did not know we wanted/needed. Christopher has found his people, found his calling. He is happy and self-confident as he found his people.

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