Pop-up store at American Dream giving autistic students real-time, real-world experience

Secaucus-based Spectrum Works hopes to take model around N.J. — and U.S.

Students on the autism spectrum in New Jersey receive perhaps the best instruction in the country for ASD kids. Transitioning to the work world — or life beyond high school — is the next challenge.

Spectrum Works, a Secaucus-based nonprofit dedicated to providing job training and employment opportunities for high school students and other young adults with autism, aims to help.

This month, it was proud to announce the opening of a pop-store for a limited time at American Dream in the Meadowlands.

The store features T-shirts, sweatshirts and baby onesies in a wide variety of designs and colors and is staffed by Spectrum Works students. All clothing is highly discounted and 100% of the proceeds support employment opportunities for autistic young adults.

The store is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday — but only through next Thursday. It is located within American Dream near the ice rink.

Ann Marie Sullivan, the founder and CEO of Spectrum Works, said the group is happy for the time it has — as it will provide a valuable real-world experience.

“We are very excited to partner with American Dream on this unique opportunity for our students to gain real-world experience working with the public amid the bustle of this unparalleled complex,” she said. “Our job coaches are on hand to manage the administration, but the students are essentially running the daily operation, from handling the payment transactions, to maintaining the displays and assisting customers.”

Spectrum Works was founded by Sullivan, an entrepreneur with two decades of experience in building and managing startup organizations, to address a critical disconnect between an 80% unemployment rate for individuals with autism and their value to the workforce as employees with inherent skills and abilities. In 2013, she partnered with Robert Butters, founder of Green Distribution, to make the Spectrum Works vision a reality.

The Spectrum Works signature Job Training and Employment Program incorporates integrated on-the-job training, classroom-based learning with a focus on soft skills, and competitive employment opportunities via partnerships with participating companies.

Sullivan said Spectrum Works’ unique approach educates companies that individuals with autism can be valuable, productive workers, provides various programs to help companies build inclusive workforces and implements programs to assist high schools and universities create job training programs for individuals with autism.

“Our model helps young adults with autism live up to their potential for stable, successful, economically self-sufficient lives, and, at the same time, helps companies create neurodiverse workforces,” she said.

While the store will shut down next week, Sullivan said the aim is to find additional locations to open in New Jersey and around the country.

“This American Dream store is our proving ground,” she said. “Part of our job training and employment program involves placing our students as interns and employees with participating partner companies. What better way to show that autistic individuals are an untapped resource for virtually any industry than exposing them to so many diverse opportunities under one roof.”