At Green Distribution, a screen printing company, ideas for personal, team and corporate apparel begin with a design process led by the creative team, which uses materials like metallic ink, rhinestones and glitter. The printing happens on one of 17 machines; finally, the apparel is folded, packed and shipped to its destination.
Of the 250 employees doing this work, Green Distribution has 25 with autism. Founded in 2009 by owner Robert Butters, Green Distribution works with Spectrum Works, a nonprofit that tries to transform the lives of people with autism through employment. For the past two years, Spectrum Works has trained its workers for Green Distribution positions and provided onsite coaching and support once they’re on the job.
“The individual disabilities do not stop the employees who have autism from being fully integrated into a workforce,” Butter said. “Spectrum Works provides the framework for my company to train, evaluate, promote and then integrate the individuals completely into my company. Our philosophy is that every person should be given the same chance to succeed to the highest level that they can.”
Employees with autism have worked in packaging and in moving the product from one machine to the next. The screen printing process is repetitive, which makes it accessible for people with autism to learn. The cognitive functions of people who have autism are most impaired in the areas of abstract thinking, social learning and communication; the screen printing process can be broken down into manageable steps. The training and support offered through the Green Distribution/Spectrum Works partnership provides every worker who has autism the opportunity to learn and take on tasks that they are responsible for independently.
Butters has taken extra steps to raise awareness about autism and financial support for Spectrum Works both within his company and in the larger community. During Autism Awareness Month in April, he donated $5 to Spectrumworks for every employee who wore blue, the official color of the advocacy organization Autism Speaks. Green Distribution also held an autism awareness day — with blue and white cupcakes and flowers for all its employees — and of course, a specially designed autism awareness T-shirt. Butters also added a donate button to one of his other companies’ websites to support Spectrum Works.
Butters said his neurotypical employees think of their Spectrum Works coworkers “as family.”
“They supervise them, encourage them and make them feel that the job they do really matters to the company, because it does,” he said.
Currently, New Jersey has the country’s highest rate of childhood autism diagnoses—1 in 42 children. (The national average is 1 in 68). Butters hope is that the partnership between his for-profit enterprise and Spectrum Works can be a model for other companies so that when those children grow up, they have the opportunity for meaningful work.
“Spectrum Works is one of the best social entrepreneurship programs I have encountered,” he said. “It is a unique pilot program that I believe with awareness and support could be rolled out across the state, throughout the U.S. and even internationally.” l