Cafe Serves Up Jobs For Young Adults With Autism

"Artista" Russell Wadsworth, 22, says the hardest part of the job was learning to make espresso.
"Artista" Russell Wadsworth, 22, says the hardest part of the job was learning to make espresso.
TAMPA (2011-12-22) -

Inside the Mercedes-Benz of Tampa dealership, there’s an art-themed coffee shop that brews drinks with names like The Picasso and The Rembrandt. But that’s not the only thing unique about Artistas Cafe.

All of the baristas – make that artistas – have autism.

The cafe is the brainchild of Vicky Westra, whose 15-year-old daughter Gabrielle has autism. Experienced in the coffee biz and disturbed by the estimated 90 percent unemployment rate for adults with autism, Westra opened Artistas Cafe in January 2011.

Beverages are free for dealership clients; employees pay. Donations and some of the proceeds benefits Art for Autism, Westra’s art therapy nonprofit.

Artista jobs are open to anyone on the autism spectrum, with an emphasis on young adults. The four current staffers are all men (autism affects up to four times more males than females), ages 20 to 24.

“I believe I change the lives of every customer I’ve ever met,” says artista Russell Wadsworth, 22. “Some people call me the sunshine of their day.”

That’s part of Westra’s goal: to replace the Rain Man stereotype with an image of engaging, competent employees. In addition to learning to make mochas and smoothies, employees role-play customer interaction and are taught to multitask – skills often difficult for people with autism.

Westra plans to open several more Artistas Cafes in 2012. While there are behind-the-scenes opportunities for anyone, the frontline jobs are reserved for people with autism.

Westra believes some artistas will work their way up the ladder within the company.

“Hopefully, though,” Westra said, “we can leave others with the confidence and the skill sets to pursue whatever dreams they might have and be successful wherever they go.”

To watch a photo slideshow of Artistas Cafe, click here.

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