Café serves up hope, opportunity for workers with autism

Last Updated Dec 30, 2015 12:42 PM EST

A Mercedes-Benz of Tampa Bay employee pulled out her debit card and exclaimed, "Superstar Ray!"

The smiling face from behind the counter replied, "Let's not go overboard."

Ray Lee-Pack handed a coffee drink across the counter. He has a job that he loves despite many people wondering if he'd ever be able to get and keep one.

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Artistas Cafe
WTSP

Lee-Pack has autism. This year, 500,000 people with autism in the U.S. will turn 18, and 90 percent of them will not be able to find a job.

Now, in the back of a car dealership in Tampa, CBS Tampa affiliate WTSP reports a program has started giving some of those young adults a chance to get one.

"I also have a daughter with autism, so I share the journey with so many parents who have the concern that what is this world going to be for my child?" said Vicky Westra, founder of Artistas Café. "When they turn 18-22, doesn't seem to be a lot of options still for young people with autism."

The cafe has been training and employing workers with autism since 2011. Currently, Vicky has eight autistic employees at Artistas. The job, which requires them to make a variety of drinks and snacks and run a cash register, teaches basic job skills.

Most customers at the dealership don't even notice the people behind the counter have autism.

"They don't recognize that 100 percent of front line team members have a diagnosis of autism and when they find out a lot of them are surprised," said Vicky.

"No, I never knew," agreed Andrew Richards. "I've come here multiple times to check my car and I never knew. They look like normal people."

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Tony Aponte
WTSP

"It takes them a little while to figure out," said Tony Aponte, who has worked at Artistas for over a year. "A few others, if they're not told we're on the spectrum, they'd probably never think we were."

The goal of the program is to provide training and/or employment for 5,000 people with autism by 2021 by helping develop their work skills.

It's also changing public perceptions about people with autism. "The first thing that came to mind was they're less functional. They can't operate in society," said Richards. "No, that changed my opinion actually. I think these people have the capability just like any other normal people."

Artistas Café has proven such a success that Vicky now plans to expand opportunities by opening a business and training center to help more people with autism get ready for jobs.

The advocacy group Autism Speaks says job resources for people with autism can also be found on the website TheSpectrumCareers.com, which can help connect them with potential employers.