‘During my journey, I realized that very little was being done to accommodate the autistic students.’
Stella Spanakos, Port Washington
“I retired from teaching social studies in 1992 to care for my son, Nicholas, who is profoundly affected by autism. During my journey, I realized that very little was being done to accommodate the autistic students. I decided to dedicate my time to the Manhasset Parents Association Special Education [organization] in my school district.
“As president, we helped create a district-wide life skills program that remains today. As we were preparing Nicholas’ transition from high school, I became very concerned that the state was not prepared for the tsunami of individuals with autism transitioning to adult services. I visited day habilitation centers that offered little opportunity for growth and community interaction. I knew they were inappropriate for my son. My husband and I had frequent conversations about our son’s future.
I would like to see our model reproduced in other communities. I love seeing the smiling faces of these hardworking individuals, their growth and the peer connections.
“In 2010, God decided to intervene, and my husband died suddenly. What was I going to do? I believed there were only two paths: Either you see the tragedy as an opportunity to create something that would make the world a better place or allow self-pity to consume me. I decided to build something that would serve not only my son, but the many deserving and capable autistic individuals in our communities.
“In October of 2011, The Nicholas Center and Spectrum Designs opened its doors in Port Washington. The center is a human service agency creating innovative programs and services that allow autistic individuals to learn, live and work in the community. Individuals learn critical life skills, vocational training, engage in community projects and improve their social and communication skills.
“Four years ago, a group of parents from Westchester asked what it would take to open The Nicholas Center and Spectrum Designs in their community. They wanted the same program for their autistic adult children. In 2020, we expanded services to our second location in Pleasantville, New York.
“I would like to see our model reproduced in other communities. I love seeing the smiling faces of these hardworking individuals, their growth and the peer connections. I am grateful for all the families and friends that supported me along this journey!”
Interviewed by Saul Schachter