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Print Craft: Apparel Decoration with a Cause

(June/July 2017) posted on Tue Jul 25, 2017

This New York organization is paving the way for not one, but two worlds: the print industry and the autism community.

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By Kelsey Johnson

Creating high-quality garments and positively impacting the lives of teenagers and young adults with autism go hand in hand at Spectrum Designs Foundation. The Port Washington, New York-based nonprofit not only screen prints tens of thousands of T-shirts for organizations like Autism Speaks, but also employs 65 teens and adults with autism.

Like so many charitable endeavors, Spectrum Designs traces its roots to one family’s actions in the face of adversity. After the sudden death of her husband, Stella Spanakos wanted to ensure that her son Nicholas, then a high school student with autism, had a community and an employer if anything ever happened to her. Employment can be a lifelong challenge for individuals on the autism spectrum; the majority of adults with the condition are unemployed according to a report from Autism Speaks, and some sources place the unemployment rate in the community as high as 80 percent. Spanakos teamed with Nicole Sugrue, a fellow “autism mom,” and Patrick Bardsley, a camp counselor at an autism camp Nicholas attended each summer, to address the problem. The three were searching for an industry that was sustainable, recession-proof, and structured enough to provide the stability that people with autism can thrive on. What checked off everything on their list? Decorated apparel.

In 2011, Spectrum Designs was born in Spanakos’ backyard barn. A skeleton crew of two teens produced a T-shirt proclaiming “I’m a Great Autism Mom” or “Proud Autism Dad” every 15 minutes with a Viper DTG machine, bringing in around $30,000 in gross sales the first year. By 2012, Spectrum Designs had created gainful employment opportunities for more than 20 teens with autism, and the Spectrum brand was expanded to include baking, laundry service, and urban gardening operations. In 2013, the apparel branch relocated to a 1500-square-foot location and invested in new embroidery, digital, and screen printing technologies to expand its decorating options.


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