Spectrum Designs

Spectrum Design:  Nicholas Center at Spectrum Designs Foundation
366 Main Street
Port Washington, NY  11050
Phone/Fax. (516) 767-7187
Website: spectrumdesigns.org

Director of Workforce Development (Nicholas Center): Dave Thomson, 516-767-7177 ext 4407

Clinical Director (Nicholas Center): Allison Schear

“Two separate 501c3 programs started by two mothers of children with autism.  Nicholas Center is the support agency and Spectrum Designs is the business component.  Spectrum Designs currently consists of three enterprises—Spectrum Designs, which produces customized apparel (3000-8000 shirts/day); Spectrum Bakes (bakery) and Suds, a boutique laundry service.  The apparel design employs 20+ people with autism and there are currently 80+ people involved with Spectrum Designs and Nicholas Center—some are paid employees and some are trainees”

My Visit:

My three-hour visit with Dave and Allison was extremely comprehensive.  We began at the Nicholas Center where I learned about history and philosophy/mission.  We then toured every aspect of the three industries—Spectrum Designs, Spectrum Bakes and Spectrum Suds.  I got to see each phase of apparel (shirt, jacket, hat, etc.) decorating including embroidery, screens, various printing machines, bundling and packaging, etc.  We then toured the bakery and the laundry. I learned about training in soft skills, training “in decoy rooms” (practice facilities) for those not yet ready to work on the production line (learning to fold, button, stay in work area, etc.) and the program’s emphasis on health and wellness (fitness room, yoga classes, trips to walk in the park, etc.).   The program receives support from various funding streams including OPWWD (Office for People with Developmental Disabilities), ACCES-VR (Vocational Rehabilitation) and through fundraising.


2011: Spectrum Designs Begins

The sudden and unfortunate passing of Paul C. Kitsos opened the door for his family to leave a legacy in his name. Named after his one and only child, the Nicholas Center for Autism was born, along with its employment initiative, Spectrum Designs Foundation.

Co-founders Stella Spanakos, Nicole Sugrue and Patrick Bardsley form a pilot program with a skeleton crew, 2 teens with autism and 1 piece of equipment in a converted barn in the back of Stella’s Long Island home.

Orders came flying in. Demand for the service and the apparel with a clear, important message is higher than we could have ever imagined! The Spectrum movement gathers momentum, employing production and educational directors


Remain true to our mission and the population we work with to provide purposeful employment and authentic vocational opportunities to those with otherwise limited choices. Committed to creating a work environment with everyone’s unique strengths in mind, while providing unsurpassed client relations and quality products.


All employees should work in an environment free from harassment, discrimination and retaliation. All Spectrum Designs staff will exhibit a professional demeanor, attention to punctuality and attendance policies, reliability, flexibility and pleasantness.


We commit to investing in products, training and methods that promote safety and emotional wellbeing while minimizing our environmental impact.


We recognize the need to innovate and evolve in order to provide the best quality, product and workplace through the use of cutting edge equipment, software and training. We continuously adapt and improve our environment to promote inclusion and efficiency.


We facilitate professional and personal developmental growth while supporting each person’s capabilities, goals and potential. We embrace diversity and inclusion in all aspects of our working environment. We recognize that a neurodiverse workforce is at the keystone of our success.

Overview of Jobs (from Website):

  1. Apparel Decorating in a community business, Spectrum Designs
  2. Culinary Preparation & Processing, at Spectrum Bakes, creating our famous customizable edible granola favors for private affairs and businesses.
  3. Reporting & Writing through our Community Paper, Navigator News! Focus on researching, writing and contributing fun news, trivia, facts, community highlights and much more!
  4. Laundry & Housekeeping, with Spectrum Suds, an on-site Laundry Boutique providing an alternative to commercialized laundry services for in-house, community members and local businesses in our area.  (It also helps teach skills needed for independent living!)
  5. Exploration and Discovery through our Work Readiness Curriculum, students are engaged in structured and interactive “classroom” instruction that emphasizes preferences, talents and dreams – not limitations. • The curriculum assists students in defining visions of lifestyles that they would like to attain, and the requirements needed to attain that goal.  The curriculum helps them think about work as a reality for them, and for those who already know that they’d like to work, teaching the skills employers want.

Nicholas Center:

The Nicholas Center offers each person the individualized attention he or she needs, to achieve their personal goals and desired outcomes. Services offered include:  Home and Youth Services [Home, School or Center-based Services that focus on Communication, Functional Life Skills, Behavioral Concerns and Transitional Services], Transitional/Teen Services [for 15-21 year olds: The Nicholas Center develops innovative programs that cater to individuals as they prepare for “life after high school”. Including well renowned pre-vocational and employment readiness opportunities and summer programs. The Nicholas Center offers small ratios, structured settings and well trained teachers and instructors. It provides skill development in life-skills, work readiness and independent living skills]. and Young Adult Services.  

Nicholas Center offers skills training within the community to develop and teach general skills such as; the ability to communicate with work-related supervisors, co-workers and customers, general workplace conduct, hygiene and dress, the ability to follow directions, complete tasks, problem solving skills, workplace safety and appropriate behaviors in and outside the workplace. When necessary and appropriate skills can also be taught in our classroom setting at our Port Washington location as well as volunteering in various community locations.

Lessons Learned/Challenges:

  • “Programs like this don’t exist because they are very hard.  It is a massive undertaking! —3 buildings, 60 individuals, they can choose their schedules, different funding sources… WE haven’t seen this model anywhere!”
  • Job coaches are vetted and trained by Nicholas Center and, unlike in some places, actually know this business.  (They point out that some programs may send a coach to Party City and he/she knows nothing about that industry; here, they know about apparel manufacturing, baking or laundry)—can monitor quality of the work, make sure coaches understand the behavioral piece, etc.
  • Invest in staff training—they have one week where program shuts down, for training the 22 staff members
  • Founders Literally Googled “recession proof businesses” and came up with “apparel decorating!”
  • “Integrated Businesses are where it is at!”—this business allows them to access the whole country (can ship goods anywhere).  Other business are more local in nature
  • Strong belief in Social Enterprises:  A social enterprise is an organization that applies commercial strategies to maximize improvements in financial, social and environmental well-being—this may include maximizing social impact alongside profits for external shareholders.
  • You sometimes need to be lucky, creative and flexible—in early days, if there weren’t enough orders and t-shirts to produce, staff got creative—the program participants went shopping and cooked lunch for the rest of the staff!
  • If you produce foods, try for things with a longer shelf life like granola and toffee
  • Nurture and maintain good relations within the community—had led to job sites for volunteers (thrift store, kitchen, movie theater, sanitation/clean up; also, to people in community purchasing products (shirts and jackets), buying baked goods and using laundry service.  
  • You can use people with disabilities—even skilled people who happened to not be verbal—as peer trainers.  
  • Identify possible quiet rooms, zones, spaces in case employees need it.
  • Promote the autism advantage—some people with autism are BETTER workers than those who are neurotypical BECAUSE they can have better focus and be more meticulous and don’t easily get bored.
  • Transportation is difficult as participants come from all over Long Island (program ends at 5 pm and dismissal looks like school dismissal—to ensure safety as there are also trucks making deliveries and pick up at same time)
  • Visual Workplace Project has been effective in using signs, icons, picture symbols And there are also messages/signs posted digitally.  
  • Need to be precise and clear with workers—“stay in work station” may be ineffective, while putting industry-style floor markings around work area can be very effective
  • Working to keep staff happy leads to very low turnover .
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