Unique, self-sustaining—a social enterprise with a vital mission to provide valuable employment opportunities to those who need them most. These words come straight from Spectrum Designs, a non-profit specializing in custom apparel staffed over 75% by a diverse group of individuals on the Autism spectrum.
Each year, upwards of 50,000 teens with Autism graduate from high school or age out of school-supported services. Nearly half of 25-year-olds with Autism have never held a paying job. These, and more insights have been researched by support organization Autism Speaks on the journey to understanding how to include and advocate for all members of society.
That journey has been significantly helped along by Spectrum Designs, a thriving t-shirt company and foundation that helps each and every team member profit from their unique approach to business creating awesome apparel for hundreds of companies from tech giants Facebook and Google to large-scale organizations KPMG and New York's Metro-North Railroad (even retail Instagram phenomenon Betches).
Dave Thompson is the Director of Workforce Development for the partnering support organization, Nicholas Center, and creator of the organization’s unique approach to running an inclusive team that logged over 20,000 hours of productivity in 2015 and is growing rapidly.
The success of the system, and why Trello has played such a large part in how it runs, is that it’s visual.
Seeing Beyond The Status Quo
Dave Thompson and some of the Spectrum Design team prepared to move out of their old space.
People with Autism often have their strongest support system in their school-age years. Teachers and parents create visual learning environments, using symbols and colors with items like magnets or post-it notes to help organize and guide them through their daily tasks and lessons. But once they graduate, Dave says it’s all-too-common for them to “fall off a cliff” from the support they’ve been operating with up to that point. In fact, 66% of people with Autism that age out of high school don’t seek employment or higher education within the next two years:
“We had to ask ourselves: What’s missing?”
Most text-heavy, email, and document-based workplaces aren’t set up to meet the needs of workers with Autism. A recent study by Atlassian found that over 55% of respondents said they have major improvements needed to how they accommodate and value neurodiversity in the workplace. And the reality is that everyone has the potential to be a productive and fulfilled employee if they simply have the right tools and frameworks for creativity and collaboration.
At Spectrum, Dave has found a way to bridge that gap. He began with an elaborate system of magnets and dry-erase markers on whiteboards with symbols, signs, color-codes and pictures of faces:
“Maybe they don’t remember you by name but can easily find you otherwise.”
As the company expanded into a larger facility, they needed to scale the system, and Trello was just the right fit—accessible and flexible.
Trello For T-Shirts
Today, Dave builds boards using symbols, color codes, and other visual cues that broadcast on monitors throughout the factory to make it easier for employees to keep track of their daily work schedule.
Each employee is given their own list, where they can see their assigned tasks as cards enhanced with covers that communicate their tasks and times through memorable images (cheeseburgers! rabbits!) that are paired with matching symbols at each workstation. Team members check the Trello board in the morning, find their task for the day, and head to their corresponding workstation via visual aid.
The system is simple and reliable, and that’s why it works:
“If I told you to meet me at Automatic Machine 2 in a half hour, you might have some trouble remembering the location by that code name. But if I say, meet me at the Cheeseburger in 30 minutes, or find that same picture on the wall and meet me there, it’s the same result with a much simpler process.”
Trello’s collaborative features are also highly beneficial for Dave, who can make schedule changes easily. As he points out, each employee’s contributions are different, ranging from flex and part-time to full-time engagement. Even from a smartphone on the facility floor, he can change an assigned symbol and that team member will see the new request in real-time:
“Trello is essential for keeping the system organized because I need to work quickly to keep production flowing, and I can do that with a fast drag-and-drop of our custom images into each team member’s list.”
The Future Of Inclusive Workplaces
Josh, a long-time Spectrum Designs employee, provides some valuable perspective on the impact that the support of Spectrum Designs, Dave’s visual system and Trello have had in helping him build a career:
“I have Asperger’s, which is on the Austism Spectrum. I like Trello because it’s very visual. As a visual learner, I learn best when I see things and Trello breaks it down very simply.
I’m able to communicate in real-time with other folks with the touch and drag system. It’s not over-stimulating or crowded; each message is in its own compartment.
I’m also able to customize it—my personal board background is a blue ocean picture. I love the ocean so it makes me feel comfortable while using it, helping me get the job done enjoyably and efficiently.”
Spectrum invests in its future with full-time and part-time adult positions, as well as school-aged intern opportunities that build the bridge for the future of inclusive workplaces. Just as Trello is a flexible tool that can be adapted to many types of team collaboration, Spectrum has been willing to see beyond the status quo to find a successful path for the company and its employees.
As Trello founder Michael Pryor puts it:
“We always say that Trello can be whatever you make it, and I'm so happy to see it being used in such an important way.”
Buy t-shirts from Spectrum Designs to support their innovative work creating supportive, visual workplaces for every person.
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