In his late teens, suffering the anxiety and social awkwardness that often comes with Asperger's syndrome, Cameron Weber had no confidence and didn't know if he'd ever be able to go to college or hold down a real job.
Then someone gave him a break — he became a barista at a major coffee chain. Forced out of his comfort zone to deal one on one with customers, Weber says he gained new skills and eventually won awards for his service.
Weber is now a commerce student at Carleton University, getting grades in the 90s. He's also chair of the board at Y's Owl Maclure, an Ottawa co-operative that serves people on the autism spectrum. In fact, Weber was the inspiration for Y's Owl's newest venture — a full service, community coffee shop on the main street of Carleton Place.
"There really is no businesses that have it as their mission or objective to solely focus on Asperger's syndrome," said Weber.
At the Owl Café, the aim is to give young people with autism not only a job, but also the skills, coping mechanisms and other support services they need to find success like Weber did.
Suzanne Ford, director of autism services at Y's Owl and the mastermind behind the new café, says the other motivation is simply having a presence in rural eastern Ontario.
"It's coffee with a purpose," said Ford, who notes families of children with autism living in Perth, Brockville, Smiths Falls, Arnprior and Almonte often commute to Ottawa for services.
"They'd ask all the time, can't you set up something in the rural communities? Can't you come out to Carleton Place? We realized it was now or never, so let's just leap. We decided to give it a whirl."
Ford said the coffee shop is a self-sufficient business operation, fuelled solely by coffee and food sales, volunteer help and community generosity.
She said the venture is also an opportunity to build awareness. The café hosts evening "gaming" programs and weekend events.
Ford proposed the café idea and applied for provincial money to help hire job coaches last summer, but she said there's been no response from ministry officials.
"Employment specialists to work with young adults in the program, to do the job coaching and training, that would be really helpful for us," said Ford.
Just eight weeks in and the Owl Café is already employing several young people with autism.
Luke Blackstone, 23, was commuting from Lanark to Ottawa to access services at Y's Owl's Ottawa centre.
He's now working at the café two days a week.
"I wasn't sure what my first job would be. It's a good job. It does help me meet people from the community," said Blackstone.
Depression, anxiety 'huge issue'
Jill Blackstone said her son was "really ready" for the job.
"He likes the title barista. It sounds very professional," she laughed. "For folks on the spectrum that are Luke's age, it's so, so important to be out on their own. So many end up being isolated and that leads to depression and anxiety and it becomes a huge issue."
But Ford doesn't want it to be seen as "the coffee shop for people with autism".
"It's a coffee shop for everybody. There's was a need for coffee in this area of the community."
Hugh Nelson, executive director at Y's Owl Maclure wants to see it as a model for other small, Ontario towns.
"What we're doing here is a concept. This is important because this is going to be a flagship for what people should do across Ontario in order to support people with high functioning autism," said Nelson.