Autistic Worker Earns Employer Award

 Joseph Penzel, right, and his father, Fred, at a fundraising figure skating event.

Joseph Penzel, right, and his father, Fred, at a fundraising figure skating event.

By Sophia Ricco
sricco@longislandergroup.com 

Huntington resident Joseph Penzel is a symbol of hard work and perseverance at his job. He has not allowed autism to stop him from being a productive worker and is now being recognized for his exceptional work ethic.

Since the 26-year-old began working at Spectrum Designs Foundation six years ago, Joseph has proven himself to be a major asset of their team, with the ability to effectively operate any of the machines in the 7,000 square foot plant. After being nominated by the company, he won the William B. Joslin Outstanding Performance Award from New York State Industries for the Disabled, Inc. He will be presented the award by state senator, Elaine Phillips on Oct. 30 at a reception at Spectrum Designs.

“He is an outstanding example of what special people are capable of when given the right opportunities,” his father, Fred Penzel said.

After graduating from HuntingtonHigh School in 2013, Joseph was in search of an employer who would hire someone with special needs. He found his autism was a roadblock.

After reading an article in a disabilities publication about Spectrum Designs Foundation, a Port Washington company that employs workers with disabilities, Joseph’s father reached out.

The business works on fabric printing and embroidery, creating custom apparel for companies like Uber and Facebook. At work, Joseph is “quasi-supervisor in his own right,” helping to train others on the machines when they come in.

“At his job, Joe is really one of the employees who can work independently. They find him a job and tell him what do and he just goes and does it,” Fred said. “He doesn’t need anyone supervising him or standing over him. He will stay with that job, and get it done. In fact, if he finishes, he will go and look for more work for himself somewhere else.”

Joseph is very independent and takes care of his own belongings, makes his own food, and does his own laundry. He enjoys taking photographs and working on the computer.

“Joe speaks through his actions more than his words,” his father said, noting when Joseph went to his interview at Spectrum, instead of going to the interview he went right to a table where he saw others working.

“When he saw what they were doing, he started to do it and put himself to work without anybody telling him anything,” his father said. “He saw work that needed to be done and he got busy.”

With an his eye for precision, Joseph has demonstrated that he can put in the same hard work any employee could. Many misconceptions exist about those with autism, but Spectrum recognizes people with disabilities can still be exceptional workers. Along with Spectrum Designs Foundation, they have Spectrum Suds, a boutique laundry facility and Spectrum Bakes, where they bake granola bars and sell them to businesses.

“It’s just not good for them to sit at home and have nothing to do, no place to go. It’s not very stimulating, it doesn’t help them to improve, advance, or grow in any way,” Fred said. “It’s as important for them to work as it is for anyone else. For their sense of self-respect and self-image, their ability to be productive is important.”

Along with receiving the William B. Joslin Outstanding Performance Award, Joseph has won gold medals at the Special Olympics as a figure skater, and numerous medals and ribbons from horseback riding. He also enjoys ice hockey and baseball.

His father said Joseph has remarkable hand-eye coordination, evidenced by his success in these sports.

“We hope that he will inspire other families to encourage their special person to take part in different sports and other activities, where before they might have thought that they weren’t capable but they really are if you just give them a chance,” Fred said.

“They’re capable people… They’re capable of learning and doing productive work,” his father said. “They have a contribution to make.”