Zoe Spiegel sells her bracelets at the Needham High School Craft Fair/ Credit: Mira Tamir Spiegel

Every year in the U.S., one in 36 children and one in 45 adults are identified with Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, a neurodevelopmental condition that affects social interaction and communication skills. To help increase understanding of both the challenges and the strengths of those on the spectrum, April has been designated Autism Acceptance Month. 

Along with dealing with the challenges, Mira Tamir Spiegel of Needham, whose 20-year-old daughter Zoe is on the spectrum, is leaning into the strengths.  

“When your kid is diagnosed with autism, the first thing you think of is, ‘I have to fix all these things,’ and that’s sort of the message that you get,” said Spiegel. “And at various points along the way you realize, ‘No, it’s about, we need to focus on the strengths.’”

Mindful that educational support services end at age 22, Spiegel was motivated to create employment opportunities for Zoe, who is not fully independent and has limited speech. Even among those on the spectrum who are independent and hold college degrees, the unemployment rate is more than 80%.

Spiegel recognized that Zoe’s obsessive organizing, attention to detail and routine could be an asset with certain kinds of tasks, like assembling kits or giveaway bags. Zoe also likes wearing multiple bracelets, and a crafts class at Needham High School revealed an unexpected talent for making them that has now become a business, Zo Much More.

“Really what I’m capitalizing on is the stereotype of liking to line things up, liking to make patterns, which when done this way is totally socially acceptable and productive,” said Spiegel. “I really wanted to focus on how her strengths could be used productively, so that was really the impetus for starting this.”

She chose the name Zo Much More in part to signify that Zoe is more than people think, but also to leave the door open for products beyond the current bead bracelets and fidget pens they sell, as well as assembly services. 

Zoe Spiegel at work on a fidget pen/ Credit: Needham Observer

The business sells Zoe’s custom bracelets for $5, with 20% of the profits going to a charity partner organization that supports quality of life for people on the spectrum. “Our goal at this point is to cover our costs, be able to make the donation and have a little left over to reinvest in the business,” said Spiegel. They created a website for the products, and Zoe enjoys selling them in person at events, including the NHS Craft Fair.

On the services side, the Spiegels found that Zoe was very good at assembling kits with multiple parts, checking for strict quality control. It started with COVID kits and later, holiday activity kits for preschoolers at their temple. That led to an internship assembling dental-care kits for patients at Chestnut Dental, which has become a paid job with two morning shifts each week.

Spiegel is hoping this will lead to more work for Zoe and others like her who need a job coach to support them in a work setting. “If companies or businesses understood how to integrate somebody like Zoe into their workplace they could, even here in Needham,” she said. 

“I think there is a big move right now for neurodiversity in the workplace, but that is for a different profile than Zoe,” said Spiegel, referring to people on the autism spectrum who are more independent and can go to work without a coach. 

“I feel like there are probably a lot of hidden opportunities in Needham, and if the companies didn’t have to support the person, if the person had a job coach coming with them, it’s not more work for them. And they could get something done that they’re either not getting done the best way right now, or they’re not getting done at all,” said Spiegel. “And it would give a great opportunity to an individual who is not going to be independently employed.”

The other market is for job coaches, she said. “There’s a huge need for job coaches, and I feel like that’s underpromoted and is a great way for people who want to work with this population.”

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