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Food truck operated by adults with autism is ready to roll in Tampa

Photos by MONICA HERNDON   |   Times  Ray Lee-Pack, of Tampa, Alejandro Pacheco, of Tampa, supervisor Scott Bartlett, of Riverview, and Remmick Wadsworth, of Ruskin, pose in front of the newly wrapped Artistas Mobile Cafe outside of the Autism Shifts Training Center. \uFEFF
Photos by MONICA HERNDON | Times Ray Lee-Pack, of Tampa, Alejandro Pacheco, of Tampa, supervisor Scott Bartlett, of Riverview, and Remmick Wadsworth, of Ruskin, pose in front of the newly wrapped Artistas Mobile Cafe outside of the Autism Shifts Training Center. \uFEFF
Published Jul. 27, 2018

Artistas Cafe has gone mobile.

After spending seven years inside the Mercedes Benz dealership on North Dale Mabry Highway, the coffeehouse that employs only autistic adults has hit the road and moved out of its static locale and into a food truck named the "Bean Mobile."

Doing so will enable the cafe to better fulfill the mission of educating society that autistic adults are employable, said Vicky Westra, cafe founder, head of the advocacy nonprofit Autism Shifts.

"The Mercedes dealership was an amazing place to start, but we were subject to those who came into it looking for a car," said Westra, mother to a 21-year-old autistic daughter. "Now, we can really get out into the community."

Unlike the dealership cafe that had set hours, the Bean Mobile only operates when its presence is requested at an event.

The truck can be booked through artistascafe.com and will be ready to roll by the start of August.

The Bean Mobile offers drinks such as fruit smoothies and its Artistas Cafe coffee plus snacks like all-natural energy balls.

"Everything we serve is healthy," Westra said. But she hopes the desire for their services extends beyond tasty treats.

"Help us educate the community that people with autism make awesome employees. When people see the team of baristas working efficiently, having an expertise, and interacting with customers, they will realize that someone with autism can do anything."

RELATED: Barista with autism sketches a fantasy world on the back of cafe's receipts.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke defines autism as a neuro-development disorder that causes problems with social communication and interaction. About one in 59 children is identified with autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The severity of autism varies from person to person. Some autistic adults are highly functional. Others struggle with basic communication. But all are employable, Westra said.

What autistic adults need to thrive is just a little extra attention, she said, such as visual training guides and atmospheres that emphasize positive behavior reinforcement.

Autism advocacy groups commonly estimate the unemployment rate among autistic adults is as high as 90 percent.

But Anne Roux, a research scientist at Drexel University's A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, said the true rate is unknown.

"We do not have good data, because it's not tracked at a national level," she said.

Still, unemployment among autistic adults is a problem, Roux said, and the reasons for the joblessness vary.

"Problems occur at all phases," Roux said. "Parents might not expect their child will work. Schools might not refer them to vocational services. Many have problems with the interview process. Navigating workplace dynamics is tough. Organizational skills are often an issue."

And those autistic adults who do find work, Westra said, "often do not (fulfill) their potential. They get a typical job people who are labeled disabled tend to get."

Westra founded her non-profit in 2007. Three years ago, Westra, then-owner of Javamo Coffees, was asked about starting a cafe inside the Mercedes dealership. She countered with hiring only autistic adults, the dealership agreed, and Artistas was born.

The food truck is just one employment option that Autism Shifts provides.

They also have a partnership with home laboratory test provider Destiny Well, which hires autistic adults, including Westra's daughter, for its online order fulfillment.

And through another partnership, Elite Animation Academy trains autistic adults to start their own animation company.

Next, Westra hopes to start a culinary training program and partner with local eateries.

"We find the unique ability of a person with autism and create a pathway for it," she said.

Proof is on the food truck.

Its painted-on coffee bean characters were designed by Russell Wadsworth, one of the truck's five baristas. Usually working alongside him is his brother, Remmick Wadsworth

"I tell the coffee team that they are the shifters of autism," Westra said. "They are shifting the perspective of what someone with autism is capable of."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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