Loudoun Filmmaker Makes the Case for Hiring Adults with Autism

By TJ Davis

In the next decade, more than 500,000 teens with autism will enter adulthood, according to Autism Speaks. But a 2017 report showed that only 14 percent of autistic adults hold paid jobs. There’s a growing concern among parents and families of autistic children that as they grow into adults they’re likely to be underemployed or unemployed.

Stephen Mackey, an entrepreneur and creative director of Mesh Omnimedia in Leesburg, wanted to show that these individuals can be diligent employees. He produced and directed an expository documentary titled “This Business of Autism” that follows an apparel customization shop that addresses the problem of employment within the autistic community. The 103-minute film will premiere Saturday July, 28, with a 2 p.m. showing at Regal Fox Stadium 16 in Brambleton.

The documentary chronicles the day-to-day operations of Spectrum Designs, a social enterprise in Port Washington, NY, as they prepare for and transition into their new 7,500-square-foot production facility. A social enterprise is a revenue-generating organization with a primary goal of addressing a social issue. Spectrum Designs primarily employs individuals with autism and helps them address potential employment barriers for future jobs.

The film’s creators and the leaders at Spectrum Designs hope that the documentary can illustrate to employers the positives of hiring workers on the spectrum.

“I think the reason that this film is so important is that there’s a lesson here for the neuro-typical community,” Mackey said. “There’s an economic model in play here that reaches far behind autism. Funding unsustainable government programs and warehousing these people does nothing to support them as individuals and it’s just a bad economic model. What Spectrum [Designs] has created here is fulfilling, rewarding opportunities for these people to impact society as a whole. In the next ten years, 500,000 people with autism are going to become workforce age. Companies can find places to employ these people.”

Spectrum Designs co-founder and CEO Patrick Bardsley hopes that the apparel shopcan be a model for future enterprises who aim to support autism.

“I’d love to be a shining example of what can be done in the social enterprise world,” Bardsley said. “Social enterprises have been around for a while. So what we’re doing isn’t new, but with the technology and advancements in apps, I feel like we have the ability to make something really big here. It’s an economic solution to a social problem—it was an innovation built out of necessity.”

The film will also address the stigma surrounding individuals with autism in the workplace.

“One of our biggest points of pride is having a neuro-diverse workforce,” Bardsley said. “There’s something to be said of people who look at problems in a different way. It’s a strength, not a weakness.”

Spectrum Designs began when Stella Spanakos, a cofounder of Spectrum Designs, founded the Nicholas Center, a nonprofit organization that helps people with autism lead full, productive and meaningful lives. The Nicholas Center is named after Spanako’s son who is on the autism spectrum.

Spanako’s nonprofit organization was founded for individuals with autism to grow and develop their life skills, and also to support their families. The Nicholas Center launched the Spectrum Designs Foundation as an employment initiative in 2011.

Spectrum Designs began with the three cofounders Spanakos, Bardsley and Nicole Sugrue, two teens on the spectrum, and one piece of equipment in Spanakos’ barn in her backyard. Now seven years later, Spectrum Designs employs more than 20 individuals with autism, annual sales grossing more than $1.4 million, and providing more than 350 weekly hours of paid work to adults with autism. Now in its new production facility, the company is set to triple production and employ more adults on the spectrum over the next few years.

“It’s been a dream come true,” said Bardsley, who didn’t expect the company to grow so quickly. “I still have to pinch myself at what we have created. One of the big lessons we learned early on was that we have to be a functional business. Yes, we’re a nonprofit, but we couldn’t operate like a nonprofit in that we have to be an enterprise. Our pricing has to be competitive, our products and our quality control has to be really high, and our customer service has to be up there with what we’re competing with.”

The film also features other autism initiatives across the country, including one called The Autism Job Club and another called the Mercyhurst University Autism Initiative program. Multiple leaders in the autism community will also appear in the film, including Dr. Temple Grandin, New York state Sen. Elaine Phillips, and former New York state Sen. Jack Martins. Original music by Justin Donovan, a 14-year-old musician from South Riding who goes by the name Kin3tic, is also featured in the film.

Several Spectrum Designs’ employees attended the documentary’s premiere in Port Washington, NY, on May 31, along with their families and leaders from the autistic community.

“There were so many emotions and feelings of pride, it was incredible,” Mackey said. “I think I felt more reward from seeing the faces of the families that were there. … The film is an emotional journey and to share that for the first time with that group of people was really so special.”

Tickets to the July 28 showing are $12.45 and can be purchased at ThisBusinessOfAutism.com. Shop or donate to Spectrum Designs at spectrumdesigns.org.

TJ Davis is a summer intern at Loudoun Now, studying journalism at Liberty University.

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