The Full Spectrum of Possibilities

Montreal’s Spectrum Productions uses media skills training to prepare youth on the autism spectrum for the workforce.

“I made a chocolate chip cheesecake,” said Peter, “and we had eaten the whole thing by 10:30 in the morning.” He grinned and said it was for Chris’ birthday, pointing at the recent birthday celebrator standing nearby.

A more effusive and bespectacled version of the Sheldon character from Big Bang Theory, Peter comes across as the de facto leader of the crew at Spectrum Productions, a largely bilingual studio filled with animators, editors, videographers, illustrators, sound designers, script writers, directors, and musicians.

Housed in a retrofitted factory in Montreal’s Mile End district, the multi-story building on Avenue de Gaspé is home to a variety of digital, gaming, and tech companies. But Spectrum isn’t just another digital media company. Founded by 30-something special educators Liam O’Rourke and Dan Ten Veen, Spectrum’s vision is to provide meaningful employment and professional skills to young people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Photo: Dan Ten Veen

For many years, those on the spectrum were first seen as people having limitations rather than as people possessing specialized skill sets. Spectrum Productions’ philosophy is guided by seeing abilities rather than disabilities and by how a therapeutic environment can go hand in hand with positive social and business outcomes.

Spectrum is a unique model built on five main sources of revenue: programs for young people, which make up just under half of the revenue, charitable donations, which add another quarter to the budget, and foundation funding, government sources, and earnings from production services that participants provide to media companies, which contribute about 10% each.

Spectrum Productions’ revenue and expense breakdown, 2016

And this multi-pronged approach to running a not-for-profit works. Since its founding in 2009, Spectrum has served over 500 individuals with its menu of offerings that include the Creative Media Lab, a Monday to Friday work day experience for young adults, as well as summer media camps and an after-school program for kids and teens that provides workshops on scriptwriting, videography, animation, editing, and post-production techniques.

“One of the things we pride ourselves on is that we’re an open door for people to come in or out whatever their needs are,” says O’Rourke. “There’s no defined period of time for the program and we certainly don’t think it’s a negative thing for people to stay. Some come for two months as, say, a prerequisite for animation school, and some stay for years, building skills and confidence, and working on corporate contracts along the way.”

Chris, the 22 year-old recent birthday cheesecake recipient, has been working at Spectrum for the past two years, participating in the Creative Media Lab program. Since he joined Spectrum, Chris has worked as a camera operator on over ten corporate production contracts in Montreal and Toronto, while Peter is often seen donning his white chef’s hat, whether hosting a cooking show on YouTube called Pete’s Sweet Eats shot on location in the kitchen at Spectrum, or planning, shopping for, and preparing the weekly Spectrum Social Club meal.

O’Rourke explains the company’s genesis in the following terms: “Dan and I came to this with an interest in film and media as an educational tool, and then started exploring it as a creative tool. We didn’t have a formal education in media production, so we didn’t know the rules we were breaking. So we’ve come to value that ‘against the grain’ style of production, and some of the most interesting pieces that come out of our studio are that.”

Ten Veen adds: “There’s something magical that happens from that experimental, on-the-fly energy. The ASD stereotype is one of atypical communicators, so you can actually hamper creativity by trying to funnel things into set ways of doing things.”

“We don’t use the typical educator/teacher role,” points out O’Rourke. “The most talented individuals that come through our studio tend to be people who pick things up really quickly and the speed at which they learn can exceed the speed at which we can teach.”

To date, the bulk of Spectrum’s fee for service work has been corporate contracts for like-minded organizations, but there’s also been work that’s come out of the company’s website and their production service flyer has been distributed around Montreal. O’Rourke and Ten Veen recently fielded a call from a website development company that is interested in hiring Spectrum for its production testing phase.

Photo: Dan Ten Veen

With a portfolio that’s been growing exponentially, O’Rourke sees the next step as solidifying connections with some larger production companies and exploring outsourcing contracts for services such as motion tracking, chroma key, end titles, colour correction, closed captioning, and the new descriptive video market, which makes film and video programming more accessible to the visually impaired.

O’Rourke and Ten Veen agree that the biggest win would be the creation of a pipeline for employment from Spectrum’s studio to these companies. Such a pipeline may not be a pipedream, either, with large tech companies such as Microsoft and SAP having started recruitment programs for coders with autism.

Spectrum has also set its sights beyond Montréal, with first-time plans afoot with partner organizations to run summer camp programming in the Greater Toronto Area in 2017.

Leora Kornfeld
So far in life, Leora has been a record store clerk, a CBC radio host, a Harvard Business School case writer, a blogger and a crossword puzzle clue. Currently she’s a media and technology consultant, working with clients in the US and Canada.
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