The barista

One step at a time, Omar Troy establishes his independence, starting with his job at Cafe Blends, where all the baristas are on the autism spectrum.

Next week: A psychotic episode threatens to derail a college freshman’s career path.

Here’s what our readers have to say about last week’s Personal Journey:

I worked for a wholesale company that sold Dante (Stephensen) all his tobacco products, etc. for many, many years. … He will be missed by many people, I am very sure. ... From his first at day at Underground until my retirement, I cherished Dante’s. Thank you for the wonderful article about a truly wonderful individual!

James Kirby, Sylacauga, Ala.

Thanks for a most enjoyable story. I’ll be sad to see him go but I understand he did well on the property sale, which should ease his retirement years. You’re right about no more “Hotlanta.” Alas.

Norman Wolfe, Cumming

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Omar Troy stands in front of a mirror, combing his short curls, inspecting his uniform. The young man with chestnut-colored eyeglass frames gives himself a pep talk before his afternoon shift behind a coffee counter.

Let’s do this thing. Let’s have a good day. Let’s serve the customers. And remember: You are working for something bigger.

Omar, 20, knows the barista position is an important opportunity for him, especially in this still-soft economy.

Serving mochas and lattes is the key to bigger things — a better job, going to college, a place of his own.

His first job out of high school as a short order cook ended after just a few weeks, leaving him with virtually no job experience. And he faced other obstacles to securing employment: He is easily distracted. He forgets things sometimes. He doesn’t always pick up on social cues.

Only in this case, being on the autism spectrum made him an ideal candidate.

A coffee shop inside a car dealership is not unusual, but last year a trio of Nalley dealerships in metro Atlanta opened them with a new concept: Cafe Blends, a place where every barista is on the autism spectrum.

“I was excited from the start,” said Omar about getting the job. “And I was determined.”

Omar wanted to prove to his parents he was ready for more responsibility — and more independence. He wanted to show everyone cozying up to the coffee counter at Nalley Lexus-Galleria in Smyrna that those on the autism spectrum can do more than what is expected of them.

And, by showing everyone, that included himself.

Something different
Omar didn't talk until he was about 3 years old. At first he just babbled until, like a light switch, he suddenly started talking in a formal manner, sounding like a little adult.

“I remember he said, ‘Obviously you can understand,’ and I was like, huh?” recalled his mother, Mary Troy, about Omar’s early speech patterns.

Omar’s family couldn’t make sense of his behavior. His hands moved incessantly; he developed a habit of hand wringing and finger twisting. His attention span was fleeting, and he couldn’t grasp basic math concepts. Yet, Omar was a good reader and gifted artist. Sketching consumed him for long spells.

Once, when Omar was about 10, he was sent to his room without toys as punishment. There he found a slip of paper and proceeded to occupy himself by folding it into a beautiful piece of origami.

Teachers, one after another, said the same thing: Omar is smart, but … he lacked focus. He didn’t complete his homework.

“It was frustrating for me, too,” said Omar. “I remember I would do my homework. I would put it in my backpack. I would get to school and couldn’t find it anywhere.”

His parents took away privileges and created organizational charts for him to use, but nothing seemed to help.

“My husband and I had finally come to the realization that he was not doing these things to deliberately annoy us,” said Mary.

In hopes of finding some answers, Mary started studying the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” scrambling for clues. There she read about Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.

Children with autism, she learned, frequently act aloof and appear uninterested in others. But individuals with Asperger’s typically are eager to interact with others; they simply don’t know how to go about it. They tend to be socially awkward, make limited eye contact and seem unengaged in conversation. They are often clumsy but exceptionally talented or skilled in a particular area, such as music or math.

Or art.

“I just thought, oh my goodness. It is Asperger’s,” said Troy.

The family felt a sense of relief. Now they knew exactly what they were up against.

Or so they thought.

Officially diagnosed in middle school with Asperger’s, attention deficit disorder and a learning disability in math, Omar started taking the drug ritalin, which helped him focus. But there was one unforseen consequence: Classmates targeted him for teasing.

“Omar is on meds and ccc-razy,” classmates said as they circled a forefinger next to their ears or smacked their forehead for emphasis.

He tried to ignore it, but at home, he had a short fuse. The slightest teasing from his younger sisters set him off, and he’d dissolve into child-like tantrums.

Omar described it as feeling like a shaken soda bottle. “Eventually it would pop,” he said.

A few close friends and the support of his family helped. He attended church with his family every Sunday and joined the church choir. And he was expected to do chores and help around the house, even if he had to be repeatedly reminded.

“We felt it was important to try and always incorporate him into what we were doing and to build some responsibility,” said his father, Garry Troy.

And Omar often found solace in drawing, which he still does for hours at a time. He frequently draws the same thing — a female cartoon character with round, soulful eyes and a soft smile. She wears a church hat and leans back under the shade of a tree. Sometimes the sketch contains a caption that says, “Life is good. Not a care in the world.”

But sometimes Omar skipped school. He stayed on the MARTA bus well beyond his stop near Redan High School. Then he’d hop on a MARTA train and go to downtown Atlanta where he’d revel in the sight of towering skyscrapers or he’d meander around Grant Park.

"Part of me wanted freedom," said Omar. "To leave my neighborhood, my school."

Finding a good fit
Omar swishes milk in a mostly empty gallon-size jug and slowly pours the liquid into a silver canister. He heats the milk, froths it into an airy foam and makes a shot of espresso.

“Enjoy,” he says with a smile, handing the cappuccino to a customer waiting for his car.

Some baristas train a year or more to learn the basic job skills at Cafe Blends, but it only took Omar a couple weeks to master the coffee maker. The biggest challenge for him is getting to work every day, and on time. Omar’s commute takes him two hours on public transit, each way.

He begins by taking a bus from his home in Stone Mountain to Indian Creek MARTA Station. Then he takes a MARTA train to Five Points, transfers to the north-south line to Arts Station, and catches a bus to the dealership in Smyrna.

He routinely arrives 45 minutes before his shift begins.

Omar still struggles with remembering things. He recently went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get a state ID card. He had all of his paperwork — but forget the $20.

“What’s the word of the day?” Arnold Harrison, a manager-in-training at the Lexus dealership, says to Omar.

“Positivity,” responds Omar.

“Yes!” says Harrison.

“I am all for this,” said Harrison, a former NFL player. “When people think of autism, they think of people incapable of taking care of themselves and that we should take care of them. But they don’t want to sit on the couch. They want to work like everyone else. They want a sense of normalcy.”

Omar’s co-workers say Omar routinely darts over to open a door for a mother with a stroller or anyone carrying bags. Allen Furlong, a service consultant at Lexus, has seen Omar show up early for his shift and inventory the snack selection to make sure there was a good mix.

For most of the baristas, the job at Cafe Blends is a rite of passage. “It’s the first step to the rest of these people’s lives,” said Becky Ketts, director of rehabilitation services at Nobis Works.

Only a third of Americans with disabilities are part of the nation’s workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And adults with autism often fare worse regardless of their IQ or education level.

Ketts said employees on the autism spectrum often are able and willing to work, but it’s a matter of finding the right job. Positions that involve interaction with the public can be difficult for someone who struggles with making eye contact and engaging in small talk with strangers.

“We had a couple who decided pretty quickly, ‘This isn’t for me,’” said Ketts.

People with autism tend to interpret language very literally; they typically do not understand sarcasm or irony. During training, Omar was told if he doesn’t comprehend a joke or comment, he can ask for clarification. If that doesn’t help, he can simply apologize and say he doesn’t understand.

Omar enjoys talking with customers and colleagues at the dealership and feels like he’s gained valuable customer service skills.

“It’s rewarding and a learning experience,” said Omar. “I like working to highlight my ... I don’t want to say disabilities ... um, different abilities. People with autism, we may be a little different but we are all living our lives and in the end, we just want to be treated like everyone else.”

Omar said Cafe Blends gives him an opportunity to just be himself. Colleagues are nice. Clients are generally pleasant and happy to receive a free made-to-order beverage and snack.

"It's a place where I am not berated, I am not ridiculed," he said. "I've calmed down."

Planning the next step
Omar has his eye on another milestone. He hopes to have a place of his own soon. He works 30 hours a week, and he pays his parents rent, including a penalty fee if he's late. He also tithes 10 percent to his church.

When Omar first started at Cafe Blends, his mother couldn’t have imagined he’d be ready to move out on his own a year later. His parents wonder if he’s ready. He sometimes forgets to take out the trash, and they worry he will forget to pay his bills every month. They also worry that because Omar is overly trusting, people will take advantage of him.

But during the past year, he’s impressed his parents. He calls if he’s going to be home late. And day after day, for almost a year now, he has shown up for work on time.

“When he first started this job, I used to think that he had the maturity of a 14-year old,” said Mary. “But now I see a young man.”

Omar loves having his own money, and he likes to buy gifts for family and friends.

He recently bought his mother new computer speakers and a coffee mug for his dad that says, “No. 1 Griller.”

He still carries paper and pencils with him at all times and spends hours sketching. He talks about someday working as a cartoonist.

But he’s learned that it’s not always the big things or the big dreams that give life meaning. Sometimes, little everyday things can be more fulfilling.

“I thought it was going to be a job, a way to make money and buy what I want,” Omar said about working at Cafe Blends.

“But I don’t see it that way anymore. It’s an experience. I’ve met a lot of people from different backgrounds, and I’ve been exposed to a lot of things, and this experience has shown me I don’t have to be ashamed of autism.”

On a recent afternoon, Omar was getting ready for work and he put on his uniform. On the right strap of his apron, he placed a blue puzzle piece pin that represents autism awareness.

And on the left strap, he placed a pin of the Disney character, Goofy.

“Goofy is my all-time favorite character,” Omar said. “He is kind of like me. He is nice and carefree but clumsy and always bumbling about. But in the end, it works out.”

Staff writer Helena Oliviero has earned a reputation for her sensitive portrayal of difficult personal situations. Today, she demonstrates that sensitivity in the inspiring story of Omar Troy, who overcame challenges associated with autism to land a paying job. Oliviero first heard about Cafe Blends from an attorney for the Asbury Automotive Group, who also was her neighbor, when the cafe was a pilot program at a Florida car dealership. When she learned Asbury was adding similar coffee shops at local dealerships, Oliviero looked into it. She discovered a cool concept for a coffee shop taking root, but also something else: how working there could change people's lives. She met several baristas but decided to focus on Omar Troy. Oliviero visited Cafe Blends several times, and spent time with Omar and his family at their home in Stone Mountain.

Ken Foskett
assistant managing editor

About the reporter

Helena Oliviero joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2002 as a features writer after four-year stints with the Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Knight Ridder as a correspondent in Mexico. She lives in Decatur with her family, was educated at the University of San Francisco and is often inspired by the people she writes about.

About the photographer

Curtis Compton joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as a photo editor in 1993. He later returned to the field as a staff photographer. Previously he worked for the Gwinnett Daily News, United Press International and the Marietta Daily Journal. In 1984 he won a World Hunger Award for covering a famine in Sudan. He has covered 27 Masters Tournaments and traveled to Iraq four times.