Opportunities grow for adults with autism

Chris Pavlak stands behind the coffee bar at Cafe Blends.  The cafe is staffed by young adults on the autism spectrum.

Story highlights

  • Chris Pavlak is one of three young adults on the autism spectrum working at cafe
  • His father has seen a remarkable improvement in his son's social skills
  • Café Blends program targets the needs of young adults with autism
Chris Pavlak stands behind the coffee bar at a car dealership in Roswell, Georgia, ready to whip up specialty lattes for waiting customers. As a 21-year-old college sophomore, working as a barista at Café Blends is his first job.
"It's a nice environment and everything, and the other employees are pretty nice too," he says.
Pinned to his black apron is a blue puzzle piece, a symbol representing autism awareness. It's also a symbol of the café's mission -- "blending autism into the workplace." Pavlak and his two co-workers are all young adults on the autism spectrum.
The café began when Nalley Lexus Roswell general manager Chris Dastou heard about a similar program at a company meeting.
"I decided it was definitely something I was interested in," he says. "Giving them a chance to work and to have an opportunity to grow as a person."
His team partnered with Nobis Works, a nonprofit organization that provides job training and placement for people with barriers to employment, to launch the café at the Roswell dealership.
Since its opening in December, the response from both employees and customers has been encouraging, Dastou says.
Karen Carlisle, vice president of corporate communications and development at Nobis Works, says it is common to hear such positive feedback from employers.
"They say, 'These are the best employees I have because they want to work.' They come in on time. They don't call in sick, and they have such a positive attitude that it's contagious to other employees," she says.
Mike Pavlak, Chris Pavlak's father, says his son has always had a positive attitude, but expressing it has not always been easy for him.
"His problems have largely been social and social interactions. He still kind of struggles with that. He's shy, especially initially," he says.
He admits being nervous when his son first took the customer service position but says the improvement he has seen in his son's communication skills since then has been remarkable.
"Within two to three weeks he was back there dancing behind the counters," he says. "I know it's easy to brag because he's my kid, but what he's accomplished is just awesome."
With an emphasis on early detection and treatment, much of autism research and support focuses on children, but Café Blends is just one of a number of new programs aimed at serving the needs of young adults.
"I think ten years ago it was all about children, but now those children are growing up, and there has been a real recognition that autism is a lifespan disorder," says Alison Singer, president of the Autism Science Foundation.
Whatever a person's age or abilities, Singer says autism should never be viewed as a barrier to self-fulfillment.
"It's just a matter of making opportunities," she says. "We have people with very strong skills who can have very productive careers. Some might not be able to, but that's also OK. We can still find productive ways for them to contribute to society."
For Mike Pavlak, the opportunity his son found at Café Blends has encouraged him to think more broadly about his future.
"I think my hopes now are the same thing that Chris wants. I'd like to see him finish his degree. I would like to see him continue work. I would like to see him get out, get an apartment, get a home, do something on his own," he says. "It's gone from a hope to an expectation."
Chris Pavlak recognizes that autism is a reality for him, but he refuses to see it as a limitation.
"I know that you can overcome it," he says. "As you can see, I have this job and am mostly doing it like any normal person would. So we can be just like anyone else."
And like anyone else, he sees his first job not as a destination, but as a beginning.
"It's something I wanted to do to make my own way in the world eventually. Just one of those steps to doing that, I suppose."