After major setback, nonprofit offers new employment opportunities for those with autism

Autism Shifts partners with medical company

TAMPA, Fla. — We've previously reported on a Tampa cafe that had to shut down leaving employees with autism without a job. Now, there is new hope.

It's a big change from coffee beans.

"It was disheartening. There's no beating around the bush on that," said Ray Lee-Pack. He's on the spectrum and a former Artistas Cafe employee.

Tampa coffee shop employing people with autism collecting donations for food truck

But before the coffee shop can reopen as a traveling coffee truck, these young adults are trying their hands at medical order fulfillment by building medical kits.

Researchers estimate that around 90 percent of those with autism are unemployed or underemployed. For Vicky Westra, founder of Autism Shifts, changing that number is personal. Her own 21-year-old daughter is on the spectrum.

"With lack of eye contact for example. Somebody can interpret that as they are not engaged," she said.

Their new boss admits at first she was apprehensive.

"So at the beginning we were a little nervous," said Michele Drielick, CEO of Destiny Well. "My staff wanted to know what it would be like. How are we going to deal with any challenges that arise."

But then she realized autism can also mean attention to detail and a strong work ethic.

"They are never late," she said, "In fact if we are late, they tell us that we came late!"

And who wouldn't want an employee like that?

Lee-Pack says there's a long way to go to fight against the stigma.

"They look weird! They are freaks, they look weird," he described the comments he's heard against those with autism.

Besides the coffee shop the only work he's done was shredding papers and that was unpaid. But even this is just the beginning.

Autism Shifts is in the works with a few other programs they hope will expand employment opportunities and one day help turn 90 percent unemployed to 90 percent employed.

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