Breaking barriers: An autistic young man inspires others by living life fearlessly

In many ways, Sam Forbes is your average 23-year-old.  

He loves pop culture, binge-watches TV shows, and is active on social media, where you can find him posting to Twitter, TikTok and Instagram. 

His eyes light up when he talks about his wide-ranging interests. 

“I’m a major true crime junkie,” says Sam, who is based in Toronto. “I binge-watched Inventing Anna, which is one of the craziest true crime stories I’ve ever heard.” 

Sam also loves to read. Current topics of interest include books about his favourite musicians, the Holocaust, and historical books. He’s a huge manga fan too and loves Japanese animation films, citing the work of famed Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki. 

Sam serving drinks at Starbucks.
Sam working as a Starbucks barista.

But there’s one thing about Sam that makes him unlike your average 23-year-old. Sam is autistic. He was diagnosed at age four at Surrey Place and has received various supports from the organization’s Autism Services over the years.  

“I can do so many things that neurotypical people can do. I just process things differently.”

While some neurotypical people might perceive autism as a limitation, for Sam it’s been anything but. Living with autism has driven him to test his own boundaries while carving out a unique place in the world. In the process, Sam is leading by example. 

“I’m an autistic young man trying to navigate this world of neurotypical people who may not understand my condition,” he says. “I’m trying to educate with my advocacy.” 

Sam advocates passionately for both the neurodiverse and LGBTQ communities. At first, he was a little scared to talk publicly about issues that are close to his heart. “I was scared about alienating audiences,” he says. But he overcame this fear in an unexpected way – by appearing on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. 

Here’s how it happened: In 2016, Sam became a viral sensation. A friend posted a video of him busting out some impressive dance moves while expertly making a beverage at the Starbucks where he works. Dancing helps Sam focus, allowing him to channel his stimming movements as he crafts customers’ drinks.  

The “dancing barista” video spread like wildfire, and soon after Sam and his manager Chris found themselves on a Los Angeles bound flight. 

“After being on Ellen I got over my anxiety and insecurity,” Sam says. “I overcame my fears by saying to myself: You’ve got this. You’re fierce. You’re amazing. I try to motivate myself, not just other people.” 

Sam as a child infront of a computer.
Sam was diagnosed with autism at Surrey Place as a kid. 

After the dancing barista video went viral, Sam says it was also touching to see the reactions of parents of individuals with different abilities. He emphasizes the words “different abilities.”  

“I’m not a fan of the word ‘disability’- it has the words ‘diss’ and ‘ability’ and why would you diss my ability?” Sam explains. “I can do so many things that neurotypical people can do. I just process things differently.” 

Sam is a pro at busting misconceptions while educating and inspiring people in both the neurotypical and autistic communities. And the way he lives his own life provides an example of how autistic people can thrive and want the same things in life as any other human being. 

Sam holds down two jobs. He’s a graduate of Humber College’s Community Integration through Co-operative Education program. He hopes to get married. Like a lot of young adults, he feels he’s not ready just yet. 

“I would love to find a partner one day,” he says. “I want to open my heart up to someone who is genuine. But right now, I don’t feel mentally ready to be in a relationship.” 

Sam has a circle of supportive people who have encouraged him throughout his life. This includes his parents, friends, and his best friend and caregiver Nina, who kept him motivated as he worked toward his college diploma. He maintains a strong relationship with Chris, the Starbucks manager who hired him when he was 17. “He’s an amazing human being,” Sam says. 

Sam holding a sign.
Sam advocates in the community.

When he isn’t working at Starbucks, Sam is a public relations and fundraising ambassador for Community Living Toronto, which provides support for people with different intellectual abilities and their families. 

“I plan to stick with those jobs for the rest of my life because I genuinely enjoy them,” he says. “The days where I don’t want to go into work are rare.” 

Sam points out that the best way for neurotypical people to better understand the neurodiverse community is by building meaningful relationships while ditching preconceived notions about individuals with different abilities.  

“It’s about understanding that we’re human beings and we also deserve to be treated like human beings. I would love it for neurotypical people to have a kinder view of neurodiverse people.”

“It would be great if they would surround themselves more with neurodiverse people,” he says. “It’s about understanding that we’re human beings and we also deserve to be treated like human beings. I would love it for neurotypical people to have a kinder view of neurodiverse people.” 

Sam hopes to show people living with autism what’s possible based on his own life and personal experiences. “Just because you have autism, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go after your dreams or chase after a career you’re interested in,” he says. “Brush off all the nasty people who say you can’t do this or that. Listen to your own soul and mind and say ‘I’m going to go after whatever I want’ and then actually do it.” 

Written by Stacey Stein

Sam holding his birthday balloons.
Sam celebrates his birthday with his best friend and caregiver, Nina

By 2 months

Has your baby had their hearing screened? YES NO

By 6 months

Does the child?

Startle in response to loud noises? YES NO
Turn to where a sound is coming from? YES NO
Make different cries for different needs (hungry, tired)? YES NO
Watch your face as you talk? YES NO
Smile/laugh in response to your smiles and laughs? YES NO
Imitate coughs or other sounds such as ah, eh, buh YES NO

By 9 months

Does the child?

Respond to their name? YES NO
Respond to the telephone ringing or a knock at the door? YES NO
Understand being told no? YES NO
Get what they want through using gestures (reaching to be picked up)? YES NO
Play social games with you (Peek-a-Boo)? YES NO
Enjoy being around people? YES NO
Babble and repeat sounds such as babababa or duhduhduh? YES NO

By 12 months

Does the child?

Follow simple one-step directions (sit down)? YES NO
Look across the room to a toy when adult points at it? YES NO
Consistently use three to five words? YES NO
Use gestures to communicate (waves hi/bye, shakes head for no)? YES NO
Get your attention using sounds, gestures and pointing while looking at your eyes? YES NO
Bring you toys to show you? YES NO
Perform for social attention and praise? YES NO
Combine lots of sounds together as though talking (abada baduh abee)? YES NO
Show an interest in simple picture books? YES NO

By 18 months

Does the child?

Understand the meaning of in and out, off and on? YES NO
Point to more than 2 body parts when asked? YES NO
Use at least 20 words consistently? YES NO
Respond with words or gestures to simple questions (Where's teddy? What's that?)? YES NO
Demonstrate some pretend play with toys (gives teddy bear a drink, pretends a bowl is a hat)? YES NO
Make at least four different consonant sounds (p ,b, m, n, d, g, w, h)? YES NO
Enjoy being read to and sharing simple books with you? YES NO
Point to pictures using one finger? YES NO

By 2 years

Does the child?

Follow two-step directions (Go find your teddy bear and show it to Grandma.)? YES NO
Use 100 to 150 words? YES NO
Use at least two pronouns (you, me, mine)? YES NO
Consistently combine two to four words in short phrases (Daddy hat. Truck go down.)? YES NO
Enjoy being around other children? YES NO
Begin to offer toys to other children and imitate other children's actions and words? YES NO
Use words that are understood by others 50 to 60 per cent of the time? YES NO
Form words or sounds easily and without effort? YES NO
Hold books the right way up and turn the pages? YES NO
Read to stuffed animals or toys? YES NO
Scribble with crayons? YES NO

By 30 months

Does the child?

Understand the concepts of size (big/little) and quantity (a little/a lot, more)? YES NO
Use some adult grammar (two cookies, bird flying, I jumped)? YES NO
Use over 350 words? YES NO
Use action words such as run, spill, fall? YES NO
Participate in some turn-taking activities with peers, using both words and toys? YES NO
Demonstrate concern when another child is hurt or sad? YES NO
Combine several actions in play (puts blocks in the train and drives the train, drops the blocks off.)? YES NO
Put sounds at the beginning of most words? YES NO
Use words with two or more syllables or beats (ba-na-na, com-pu-ter, a-pple)? YES NO
Recognize familiar logos and signs involving print (Stop sign)? YES NO
Remember and understand familiar stories? YES NO

By 3 years

Does the child?

Understand who, what, where and why questions? YES NO
Create long sentences using five to eight words? YES NO
Talk about past events (trip to grandparents house, day at child care)? YES NO
Tell simple stories? YES NO
Show affection for favourite playmates? YES NO
Engage in multi-step pretend play (pretending to cook a meal, repair a car)? YES NO
Talk in a way that most people outside of the family understand what she/he is saying most of the time? YES NO
Have an understanding of the function of print (menus, lists, signs)? YES NO
Show interest in, and awareness of, rhyming words? YES NO
Read to stuffed animals or toys? YES NO
Scribble with crayons? YES NO

By 4 years

Does the child?

Follow directions involving three or more steps (First get some paper, then draw a picture and give it to Mommy)? YES NO
Use adult type grammar? YES NO
Tell stories with a beginning, middle and end? YES NO
Talk to try and solve problems with adults and with other children? YES NO
Show increasingly complex imaginary play? YES NO
Talk in a way that is understood by strangers almost all the time? YES NO
Generate simple rhymes (cat-bat)? YES NO
Match some letters with their sounds (letter b says buh, letter t says tuh)? YES NO