When Andrew Berra, my brother, graduated from high school in 2008, his options were few. Andrew is on the autism spectrum and, as with many autistic adults, our family had difficulty figuring out his next step. He bounced from one job or program to another until we found Spectrum Works, a nonprofit T-shirt screening company in Secaucus.
Spectrum Works operates in partnership with Green Distribution, a large screen-printing company that produces concert T-shirts for acts such as the Rolling Stones and Lady Gaga and affixes heat-applied numbers on all NBA jerseys. Spectrum Works, founded in 2011, brings in and completes orders using space, equipment and job mentors provided free of charge by Green.
Spectrum Works relies on grants and donations, but its aim is financial independence. “Our impact isn’t going to be just about hiring people,” says Spectrum Works CEO Ann Marie Sullivan, a veteran entrepreneur. “We want to create a self-sustaining company and show that people with autism did this.”
According to Autism Speaks, 500,000 autistic teens will graduate from high school within the next 10 years. Many, like Andrew, have difficulty finding jobs; approximately 80 percent of adults diagnosed with autism are unemployed. But Spectrum Works, which works with teens as young as 16 to give them a skill set they can use as soon as they graduate, gave my brother a destination.
Andrew, 24, works two days a week at Spectrum Works, along with 14 other autistic employees, whom he now considers friends. “I really like everyone at Spectrum Works,” Andrew says. “They’ve taught me to do lots of things. My favorite is heat transfers, but I also do work on the other screening machines.” Along the way, he has learned to create Excel spreadsheets, order forms and packing labels. As Spectrum Works grows and brings in more business, Sullivan hopes to be able to provide more hours for Andrew and her other employees and to increase their skills so they can potentially be absorbed into Green’s workforce.
“This is not a camp, it’s a job,” says Green CEO Robert Butters. “The Spectrum Works employees are not separated, and they’re part of the process. We’re developing the program in a way that has the most benefit for us and the greatest impact for them.”
Andrew, who lives with family in Verona, where he grew up, thrives in his work environment. He beams with pride when he completes an order from start to finish on his own. When he is focused on an assigned task, he is largely at peace.
“People on the autism spectrum are always more productive in structured, supervised settings,” says Livingston-based child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Ted Lipman. Otherwise, he says, “They get distracted and lost in their thoughts, and their behavior deteriorates. The busier Andrew is, the better he does.”
Spectrum Works has given my brother achievable goals. In turn, he’s helping Spectrum Works achieve its aims.
Lindsay Berra is a national correspondent for MLB.com.
Click here to read about what happens when autistic kids age out of state services.