A partner with autism hopes a viral video ‘opens minds’

Update February 23, 2016: "Sam the dancing barista" appears on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Watch a clip here and see the huge surprise Ellen had for Sam. 

A teenager with autism who became a social media sensation over the weekend said he always wanted to work for Starbucks, and now he hopes more employers will give people with special needs an opportunity to succeed.

“People with autism do not want to be looked at with sympathy, so I would say to anyone  please, please, please keep an open mind about what people with special needs can do,” said Sam, who’s 17 and would like to be an actor someday.

Social media attention began for Sam after a customer in Toronto noticed him dancing as he prepared beverages and thought the moment was video-worthy. More than 50 million people agree. That’s how many have watched the video Carley Fleischmann posted on her social pages and watched spread through Facebook on the Love What Matters page.

A Teenager Named Sam :)


Fleischmann wrote in her original post: "I would like to introduce you to a teenager named Sam. When he was offered a position to work at Starbucks, Sam told his parents that his life had meaning. Sam was diagnosed with autism and with a movement disorder. Sam never thought he would be able to work behind the bar, but his manager, Chris, believed in him. They turned his movements into dance and now Sam is known as the dancing barista. More people like Sam need to be seen and heard."

Acknowledging people with autism is something Fleischmann takes personally. She’s the author of one of the first books to explore the challenges of living with autism firsthand. Fleischmann was diagnosed with autism at an early age and has since dedicated her life to tackling misconceptions that sometimes accompany the condition.

How Sam Got a Job with Starbucks

Starbucks district manager Joanna Manabat shares Fleischmann’s goal. Manabat’s sister works with Integrated Services for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders (ISAND), an organization in Toronto that supports children and adults with neurological disorders and autism. Starbucks teamed up with the organization to raise money to send kids with autism to a summer camp.

Starbucks partners (employees), including store manager Chris Ali, who’s seen in the video working next to Sam, supported the camp last year. They helped develop job and interview skills and talked to the young people about customer service. Ali also did a formal coffee tasting at the summer camp. Sam attended that camp and was particularly drawn to the experience.

Sam mentioned that one of his dreams was to work as a barista at Starbucks. Later Ali spoke with Sam’s family about hiring him as the store’s café attendant. In that role, a partner primarily busses tables, stocks the condiment stand and provides beverage samples to customers, but doesn’t make beverages. The family agreed it would be a good opportunity. Sam has now been working with Starbucks for three months.

 “Our system of training is all about repeatable routines,” his manager Ali said. “In speaking with ISAND, I learned that the best way that kids with autism learn is through repetition – either visual or through pictures.

New Opportunities

Last fall, Sam made an impassioned speech in front of an executive who was visiting the store – Cliff Burrows, group president responsible for all of Starbucks operations in North America. Sam said people with disabilities can do more than most people believe and they are often limited by others. That moment inspired Ali and Manabat to expand Sam’s role as a café attendant and give him an opportunity to make drinks, too.

“Sam has been diagnosed with a movement disorder as well, so the dancing provides him with more control,” Ali said. “He is doing great and learning new skills. We’re helping him build his presentation skills through coffee tastings and he’s more outgoing now.”

“People with autism do not want to be looked at with sympathy, so I would say to anyone  please, please, please keep an open mind about what people with special needs can do,” said Sam, who’s 17 and one day would like to be an actor.

While Sam said Starbucks has done a lot for him, partners say he’s done even more for the store and its customers.

“His happiness has rubbed off on partners and customers,” said Ali. “I’m inspired by his success.”

Manabat added, “I’m overwhelmed by everything that has happened with Sam. It just goes to show you that there is potential in everyone. Sometimes you may have limiting beliefs, but Sam has shown me how much we can grow as individuals and businesses.”

Starbucks Core Values

Starbucks has long valued diversity and inclusion as part of its mission and guiding principles. This includes hiring partners with varied backgrounds and working with them to find opportunity and success in their careers. In June 2015, Starbucks scored 100 out of 100 on a new Disability Equality Index survey, a joint initiative of the American Association of People with Disabilities and the U.S. Business Leadership Network.

Starbucks largest coffee roasting plant in York, Pennsylvania, also launched a program for people with disabilities called the Starbucks Inclusion Academy. A similar program began a year ago in Starbucks largest distribution facility near Carson City, Nevada.

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Starbucks names first North American Barista Champion: Darcy Todd of Texas