By Sophie Bell, Digital Marketing Executive at The Edge

Spectrum Designs are a New York based Non Profit with a social mission: to help individuals with Autism lead full and productive lives throughout the world of work. They create opportunities for employment, empowerment and growth.

Anxiety disorders are very common amongst people on the autistic spectrum. Roughly 40% have symptoms of at least one anxiety disorder at any time, compared with only 15% in the general population. Understandably, this can lead to sadness or depression.

A Multi-Tiered Approach 

Spectrum Designs operate a multi-tiered approach to mental health in the workplace which starts before the employee even walks through their doors. From VR in their on-boarding program to monthly wellness training with meditation and additional support as and when needed for their employees and their loves ones. We sit down with Tim Howe, COO to learn more…


When you started Spectrum were you already aware of the high stats of mental health within the autistic community or was this something that came to your attention over time? 

Spectrum was founded by Stella Spanakos, Nicole Sugrue and Patrick Bardsley in 2011 with the express intention of providing jobs to teens and young adults with developmental disabilities, particularly Autism.

Both Stella and Nicole have sons who are on the Spectrum and they wanted to create something sustainable and self-sufficient that would be able to provide steady employment in a supportive and constructive work environment. As parents they were both incredibly aware of the challenges that their sons face, so teamed up with Patrick who has a Master’s in Special Education with a concentration in Autism to try and make a difference.

The stats on mental health within the autistic community were ever-present in their minds, over time it’s become more and more evident and as we’ve grown we have been able to build on the support we provide which includes the hiring of a Chief of Staff who’s a licensed social worker to provide another level of support and expertise to our staff both on and off the Spectrum.

Tell me about your onboarding program which includes the use of VR headsets? 

For some individuals with mental health issues such as anxiety the idea of a new place, especially a work-place can be quite daunting. Therefore when the opportunity arose to be a launch partner alongside Google on their ‘Tour Creator’ we saw this as a solution to the problem.

This software allows potential candidates to take a tour of our building and get acclimated to the space without even leaving their homes. We have some trainees who have found this a great comfort in the build up to either starting work here or even simply coming for a tour or an interview.

If you’d like more on Virtual Reality, click here to read the insightful article by Alex Amos, one of our Executive Directors.


When did you introduce the monthly wellness training? Tell me what success this has generated?

Check-in meetings were developed about a year ago to create a safe space for employees to express their needs, goals, successes and failures both professionally and personally. We have an integrated workforce, so everyone has different challenges – the one level playing field we all have is a need for mental wellness.

Employees who feel comfortable and supported within their workplace are ultimately more productive and successful in their work and generally more fulfilled, and this for us has been so evident from the results we’ve seen. It has changed the narrative on stress in the building to being something we can tackle as a team rather than something to be faced alone.


What is your Employee Assistance program?

Spectrum Designs has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) through Open Arms which is offered to all employees and their family members who may be faced with dynamic challenges surrounding family issues, financial concerns, legal issues, alcohol or substance use problems, marital problems, and illness of family member, emotional worries and more.

The plan includes: 3-short-term EAP counseling sessions per issue – either by phone or in person at 3-locations, professional counseling services to employees and families through personal and confidential sessions, e-therapy, assessment and referrals to external therapists within employee’s network and legal services consisting of 3 in-house visits.

Do you find that your employees open up to you? If yes, how do you think you have managed to create that relationship with them?

I believe there is something to be said about the impact of a company’s Core Values which all staff and volunteers alike are held to. The Core Values ultimately embody the culture of the organization- promoting mutual respect, professionalism, the importance of putting people first and general acknowledgement of employee’s health and emotional wellbeing.

This allows for a safe space where employees feel comfortable enough to express themselves openly and honestly. The environment that creates is more like a family than you find elsewhere – my favorite part of my job is that I can be stressed about whether we will get Uber the items they need for an event on time one minute, then step into the break room right into the middle of a heated debate over who is the best Ninja Turtle!


What benefits would other businesses get from offering the same support as you do at Spectrum? 

When employees feel supported emotionally and that they can share without being judged to someone in the organization it vastly increases employee trust in the organization as a whole. Treating mental health the same way you would treat physical health is incredibly important – employees should be encouraged to take care of their mental wellness.

As an organization we are judged by how we treat our employees just as much as how we treat our customers. In the United States, we are the model that people look to for best practices, but along with the pressure comes a level of benefit – finding employees is incredibly easy, increasing stakeholder and donor engagement is much easier as we are seen as offering a safe career for life to people, rather than being a stop-gap.

Although we are very proud of our customer service and the level of the products we put out – there can be no doubt that the vast majority of our clients and consumers are ONLY clients and consumers because of our social mission. When a client knows the impact they are having on the lives of people with disabilities just by ordering from us they are less likely to shop elsewhere, more likely to buy other products from us, and more likely to donate or support our events.


You use film on your social channels to create an understanding of what you do and communicate your work culture, how important is it that you get those messages across? 

Film has been absolutely crucial to our growth. We believe we have such a compelling story, and our workplace is always full of stories of people doing amazing things and smiling happy faces. I think this was the main reason why Stephen Mackey and the team at Mesh Omnimedia wanted to make the feature length documentary about us.

We also feature various parts of our organization and our staff in our #SpectrumSpotlight film series – we use film here to engage customers, potential donors and our supporters in behind the scenes aspects of what we do, but we have also found that film hugely increases employee engagement, they are so proud to be a part of the organization and to be able to share films of themselves.


So… How to design a multi-tiered approach to mental health that fits your business? Different industries have higher rates of specific mental health issues – for example, people in office based jobs may be more susceptible to stress whereas remote or client-facing individuals may experience anxiety with changing environments or faces.

What practices can you put into place to improve your employee’s mental health? Is it VR within your onboarding program or monthly check-ins with an external expert, maybe a morning yoga session or post-work meditation?

Looking at what you can do to ensure you are getting the best out of your employees will ensure they are reaching their potential – and be sure to shout about it, encourage other businesses to do the same.

Using film to communicate your message is the best way to create emotional connections with potential clients or investors and with film gaining highest engagement of all communication efforts online this ensures maximum reach.