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Islands of Brilliance: Local teens on autism spectrum break new ground in virtual reality industry

Posted at 6:59 PM, Feb 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-28 20:06:48-05

MILWAUKEE — Local teens are breaking new ground in the virtual reality industry by creating the first game made by students on the autism spectrum.

A Milwaukee organization called Islands of Brilliance came up with this idea because 83 percent of young adults on the autism spectrum are unemployed.

Local teens are building the virtual reality game from scratch, learning tech skills that are highly sought after in a growing industry.

Inside a computer lab in the Third Ward, teens are hard at work developing a game to take people across the world into a fantasy land of their creation.

"Basically, what I'm trying to do is I'm trying to generate infinite terrain randomly," said Nathan Schmitt.

Schmitt took an interest in computer coding when he was just 5 years old. Now as a Franklin High School sophomore, he's participating in the massive project to make it his career.

"I want to be either a game developer for making games or I want to work at Microsoft," Schmitt said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 out of every 59 kids are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, but far more concerning for Islands of Brilliance Executive Director Mark Fairbanks is their job outlook.

"The 83 percent unemployment rate is just an astronomical figure and there's systemic reasons for that so we're trying to address some of the root causes around it," Fairbanks said.

Fairbanks said creating a virtual reality game helps these students learn complex computer programs while building social and emotional skills by working as a team.

"What we see with our students is that they are naturally suited for that type of work," Fairbanks explained. "They can focus for longer periods of time, they are gifted with technology so if we give them the opportunity to learn in a supported environment, the likelihood for them to go on and work in this community only increases."

These students will spend the next 18 months building the game from start to finish. It will one day be accessible on the internet.

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