Words by Sydney MacDonald

When you first walk into Spectrum Designs it doesn’t feel like you’re on the floor of a decorating business. There’s music blasting from the speakers, everyone has a smile on their face and there’s an unmistakable air of acceptance. Aside from providing top notch designs for companies like Comedy Central, Betches and the David Lynch Foundation, Spectrum Designs are also tackling a major social issue: providing employment opportunities for individuals living with autism.  

In 2010, Spectrum Designs Co-Founder Stella Spanakos’ husband had a major heart attack and passed away. Before his death, Spankos and her husband battled with the grim truth that companies weren’t able to provide satisfactory work environments for individuals living with disabilities such as their son Nicholas.

Instead of tolerating that her son, who lives autism, would exist in a world without the potential for gainful employment training, Spanakos took matters into her own hands.     

“My son is profoundly affected by autism. He has no speech whatsoever and he has a seizure disorder. If I didn’t help create this for him, it wasn’t going to get done and he wasn’t going to get educated and learn to survive out there,” Spanakos said.

With the joint efforts of Spanakos, Patrick Bardsley and Nicole Sugrue, Spectrum Designs Foundation was formed as an employment initiative alongside the creation of the nonprofit Nicholas Center For Autism in 2011.

“It was really born out of necessity. It’s a population that faces upwards of 90% unemployment rate. In the next decade they estimate that half a million people with autism are going to graduate high school and face only a 10% chance of being employed. It’s a problem all of us need to start taking seriously,” Bardsley said.  

What started out as a small operation based out of a backyard barn, Spectrum has grown to serve over fifty families affected by autism and now operates out of a multistory facility.

With over two million dollars in sales alone last year, Spectrum has some serious momentum.“If you can take out the autism and take out the disability and go: here’s a guy who really wants to help, and be productive and take home a paycheck to make their parents proud, then it’s the same for everybody. Whether they have autism or not,” Chief Operating Officer Tim Howe said.