Courtesy of Spectrum Divisions
Some Westchester businesses are making an effort to hire neurodiverse staff — and learning that success often follows.
The past few years have been busy for Petra Pasquina. In addition to navigating the pandemic, the Mamaroneck-based working mom also quit her day job in sales and marketing to launch her own business, Chewma, a snack company specializing in gluten-free protein bites.
Chewma’s genesis was simple: the need for a healthy, filling, and gluten-free snack for Pasquina’s hectic lifestyle.
“I decided there had to be a better way to snack,” Pasquina recalls. She began experimenting in her home kitchen and developed savory recipes, like Italian cheese and herb, and chipotle cheddar. Her friends were quickly hooked, and so a side hustle during the pandemic quickly became her main hustle.
Starting your own business is never easy — especially in the notoriously difficult food industry amid a global pandemic. But Chewma has built up a devoted following and is expanding to shops across the region. Meanwhile, Pasquina has found support in an unexpected place: her neurodivergent baking staff.
“This was a great way to create jobs and opportunity in the community — but also to get some help in the kitchen,” Pasquina says of her decision to hire two bakers on the autism spectrum.
“I work with two neurodiverse bakers, and they’re amazing,” Pasquina explains. “We call ourselves the Chew Crew. We have a good time in the kitchen, and we’ve been able to really improve the baking process. We’ve got this down to a science.”
Seeking a job — whether in a bakery, office, or anywhere else — is never easy. There’s the scouring of career boards, the meticulous crafting of cover letters, and pre-interview anxiety. Yet, the process is that much more challenging for neurodivergent job seekers, especially for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Indeed, the nonprofit Autism Speaks says that about half of 25-year-olds with autism have never been employed and estimates that as much as 85% of the autistic adult population may be either unemployed or underemployed.
Many of these figures can be fueled by myths and misconceptions about neurodivergent employees. “They range from not as productive and harder to employ to not social or poor in quality control,” says Patrick Bardsley, CEO and cofounder of Spectrum Designs in Pleasantville and the parent of an adult with autism. “These things couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Fortunately, there is a growing number of business owners in Westchester — like Pasquina and Bardsley — who are challenging these assumptions. “Companies, corporations, and social enterprises are starting to open their eyes a little more to having a neurodiverse workforce for myriad reasons,” explains Deborah Novick, Westchester County’s director for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. “It’s not just about diversity, equity, and inclusion. There’s a business case to be made, as well.”
Few people know this better than Bardsley. Spectrum Designs and its sister organizations, Spectrum Bakes and Spectrum Suds, sell apparel, gourmet baked goods, and boutique laundry services while boasting a staff whose majority is neurodiverse.
“We’re a collection of social enterprise businesses,” Bardsley explains, “and they all have the same mission: creating employment for individuals on the autism spectrum.” In total, the initiatives have provided over 80,000 hours of work and wages, exceeding $1 million.
Bardsley’s Spectrum enterprises were started out of personal necessity to help address the hiring obstacles that autistic individuals encounter. Bardsley and his two cofounders are the parents of children on the autism spectrum. When they launched Spectrum Designs, in 2011, their children were teenagers, and the lack of career pathways was quickly becoming apparent.
“The unemployment rate is so high for adults on the spectrum,” Bardsley says. But rather than sit by, discouraged, Bardsley and his partners got creative. “We said that if finding employment is going to be hard, then let’s create it.”
What started as an experiment has since transformed into a trustworthy brand. While Spectrum Designs began in a backyard barn, it now boasts more than 70 employees. Clients include international corporations, like Google and Uber; instantly recognizable names, like Metro-North Railroad and Special Olympics New York; and smaller local businesses that dot Westchester and Long Island. “We’re very honored by people saying, ‘Let’s give these guys a chance,’” Bardsley says.
Yet Bardsley insists that Spectrum’s success isn’t due to charity. “Customers give us that first chance because they want to support us, but then they come back because we’re delivering on time and on budget. We provide a service or a product that people want and need at a competitive price and with high quality,” he says.
Indeed, clients have come to rely on Spectrum for everything from customized shirts, bags, and blankets to delectable granola and chocolate-dipped pretzels to reliable laundry service.
All of this debunks the misconceptions about hiring neurodivergent employees. Says Bardsley: “We have a really high retention rate; we have seen successful growth over the years; we’ve got loyal, dedicated people here; and our quality control is really, really high.”
At Chewma, Pasquina has had the same experience. She decided to hire a neurodiverse staff after meeting the founder of South Fork Bakery at a virtual conference. South Fork Bakery, based in Long Island, provides employment for adults with special needs.
As the aunt to a nephew with autism, Pasquina was eager to take a similar approach. “One of the things [my nephew] loves to do with his mom is bake,” she says.
Pasquina ended up hiring two bakers from South Fork, providing a pilot program for the Long Island bakery: “They never had folks work outside their bakery,” Pasquina says. Now, with some patience and the help of a job coach, the Chew Crew is in full swing.
“You just have to understand strengths and weaknesses, like with any position,” Pasquina says. “You definitely have to put a little bit into it, but you get a lot out of it.”
A growing trend
Bardsley and Pasquina aren’t alone in hiring neurodiverse employees. Across Westchester, business owners are also bringing on staff with ASD — and learning that success can follow. According to Novick, there are multiple reasons employers might seek out this demographic.
“[Employers] have a variety of reasons,” she explains. “Sometimes, they have a personal connection — someone in their family, or in their community, is neurodiverse and brings to their attention the challenges that this population has in finding employment.”
Other times, it’s simply economics. “People are finding it harder and harder to find employees,” Novick says. In the Great Resignation of 2021, a record number of Americans — more than four million — quit or changed jobs, according to The Washington Post.
In this new employment landscape, hiring managers are simply having to broaden their reach. “And hopefully when doing that,” Novick notes, “they’re including those on the spectrum and the neurodiverse community.”
Novick adds that this shift is a welcome one, providing opportunity to individuals that have too often been overlooked. “There’s so much besides financial security that comes from working,” she says. “There’s dignity, a sense of pride and accomplishment, and literally what to do with your time all day. It hurts all of us if percentages of our population are not engaged in the economy.”
Novick is optimistic, but cautiously so, that this trend will continue. “There are encouraging signs, but there’s also still a lot of work ahead.”
“Companies, corporations, and social enterprises are starting to open their eyes a little more to having a neurodiverse workforce for myriad reasons.”
—Deborah Novick, Westchester County’s director for Entrepreneurship and Innovation
If more employers listen to folks like Pasquina and Bardsley, that work might get done faster. Bardsley says business owners who want to solve thorny problems should count neurodiverse employees as key allies. “Having different kinds of minds to problem-solve and work on tasks really creates a more inclusive culture,” he says. “It’s about company reputation and employees that add tremendous value to your business.”