Spectrum Fusion

This Houston Nonprofit Is Helping Autistic Adults Succeed in the Workplace

Spectrum Fusion's all-autistic media team helps create a sense of community and belonging for autistic adults.

By Daniel Renfrow April 26, 2023

Spectrum Fusion Studios employs a full team of autistic videographers, scriptwriters, editors, graphic designers, and voiceover artists, including Darren Logue (pictured second from left).

When Darren Logue, 25, graduated from Houston Community College in 2019 with a filmmaking certificate, he was, like many new college graduates, excited about entering into the workforce. For Logue, however, that transition didn’t go as smoothly as he had hoped. Logue is autistic, and although he is adept behind a camera and doing post-production work, he struggled to find consistent work.

In 2020, Logue found out about Spectrum Fusion, a local 501(c)(3) nonprofit focused on improving the lives of autistic adults, and he decided to start participating in its programs. “I heard that they wanted to help out people on the autism spectrum, and I had been struggling to find some consistent work since graduating from college,” he says. By 2021, the burgeoning filmmaker had become an official employee of Spectrum Fusion Studios, the nonprofit’s all-autistic in-house media team, which produces promotional materials—commercials, videos, and voiceovers—for a client list that includes Johnson & Johnson, ROCO (formerly the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra), Kaiser Permanente, Autism Speaks, Symbol-It, and DiversePro among others. 

At a previous part-time job during his high school years, Logue had found it difficult to interact with his coworkers. At Spectrum Fusion Studios, however, Logue has found a sense of community as well as a work family with common goals, perspectives, and interests. “At a job like Spectrum Fusion, I have some similar interests with the people I work with, and they’ve all become great friends to talk to around the office,” he says. “We’re encouraged to be creative, and it can be a lot of fun to go through the whole process while we’re working on our projects.”

According to Spectrum Fusion’s founder and CEO, Dr. Heidi Stieglitz Ham, 85 percent of adults on the spectrum are either unemployed or underemployed, a situation she believes stems, in part, from a lack of attention on the challenges facing autistic adults by other autism organizations and nonprofits, which, she says, tend to focus more on autistic children and their parents. Dr. Ham, whose work as a researcher has seen her working with individuals on the spectrum as well as their families in Nigeria, Australia, the UK, and the United States, founded Spectrum Fusion in 2018 as a way to address the plight of autistic adults in the workforce—or, you could say, their general exclusion from it.  

“Autistic children grow up, and we do not have opportunities available for them," says Dr. Ham. "Many are isolated, unemployed, and still living at home with their families."

For some of the autistic adults who are actually working, Dr. Ham says, “they’re working in unhealthy environments where they are being bullied. And when that happens, they end up having trauma and developing PTSD. I’ve known people who will never go back to work again because they’ve been so traumatized.”

Clients of Spectrum Fusion Studios include Johnson & Johnson, River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, Kaiser Permanente, Autism Speaks, Symbol-It, and DiversePro among others. 

At Spectrum Fusion Studios, which has a full team of autistic videographers, scriptwriters, editors, graphic designers, and voiceover artists, Dr. Ham has focused her efforts on creating a supportive work environment that is set up to make sure all of her employees have their individual needs met. To that end, she provides Spectrum Fusion Studios staff with the flexibility they need to be successful in their work—from allowing them to start work later in the day to providing them with comprehensive onboarding, pet bereavement days, and mental health days.

“All of our employees want to work,” she says. “They want to do a good job. They want to be productive. And if they can’t, it’s not because they’re lazy; it’s just because they need some help.” 

In addition to Spectrum Fusion Studios, the nonprofit, which will soon move its headquarters to the Impact Hub Houston in downtown, also has programs in writing, music, cooking, and fitness, all community groups run by parents and volunteers and open to autistic adults living in Houston. Dr. Ham sees these groups as great ways for autistic adults to meet other people on the spectrum and to make their own friends. “You wouldn’t believe how special this is to them. They really know each other, they look out for each other, they check in on each other. They’re real friends there,” she says. “They all gain an authentic, true sense of belonging from these groups.”

Members of Spectrum Fusion Studios now mentor children on the autism spectrum. 

Diego Velázquez, also 25, moved from Mexico to Houston in 2012 when he was 14 years old, and learned about Spectrum Fusion through a local TV segment on the group. “What attracted me was the incredible success they have in helping other people like me with autism,” he says. “I saw them on the news and it ignited a spark in me to contact them. I wanted to reach a community of other autistic people who go through what I go through every day.”

Velázquez, who lives with his family in Pearland and works for a local retailer, says that he often struggles at his place of employment due to his difficulty with recognizing social cues, something that he believes has led to what he considers workplace bullying. “I fail to see the social cues within people whenever they might not like me or might find me annoying,” he says. “I may not know what [my coworkers] say about me, but it puts me in a bad place because I do nothing but try my best to bring positivity to the workplace. I believe my situation is something other people also on the spectrum can relate to; people just don’t understand what our intentions are.”

Velázquez, who loves storytelling and narratives, says he is most interested in Spectrum Fusion’s film programs as well as its creative writing programs. “I love filmmaking; it’s one of my biggest passions,” he says. “That is my passion for a career,” and he hopes to one day be employed by Spectrum Fusion Studios. 

If Velázquez is able to eventually follow through with his goal, he will be in good company. In addition to their full-time work creating media for companies and for the nonprofit itself, members of Spectrum Fusion Studios can now add mentorship to their resumes. The nonprofit has a new filmmaking program for children that allows the adult employees of the studio the opportunity to teach and mentor children on the spectrum. It’s a program that is already changing lives. “They’re so kind and gentle and understanding, and the younger ones really look up to them,” says Dr. Ham. “Parents are happy too, because when you have a nine-year-old autistic child, you don’t necessarily know what they’re going to look like when they’re 23, but they’re driving and they have a job. It’s really heartwarming.”

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