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Why I'm Not Thrilled About the Story Behind This Decorated Cake Going Viral

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On my Facebook newsfeed this morning: a photo of a birthday cake with numerous likes and comments, and over 100,000 shares. It wasn’t a fondant masterpiece or celebrating a Kardashian; it was just a simple sheet cake with unexpectedly imperfect lettering from a supermarket bakery. The excitement and attention for the cake came from the backstory, which, according to the storyteller, has the moral that “kindness is important.”

The customer explained on her social media post that she simply chose a cake and asked the employee at the bakery counter to personalize it with “Happy Birthday” in colorful icing. As she received the cake, she noticed that the lettering was not comparable to the scrolling edible script we are all accustomed to seeing. Nonetheless, it was legible, so she smiled, thanked the employee and went to check out. At the register, supermarket employees (including the store manager) crowded her to take photos of the cake. They lauded her for smiling at and thanking the employee. One cashier said, “…even though she’s not supposed to write on cakes, you probably made her day.”

It turns out that the bakery employee who was tasked with writing the icing message on the customer’s cake is a woman who has an autism diagnosis. The likes and comments were cheering the customer’s good deed. I have devoted my life to working with people who have developmental disabilities and their families. I am always thrilled to see positive stories about inclusion and acceptance, especially on social media platforms that spread these messages so broadly. Unfortunately, I did not feel thrilled about this particular story, which seems to have garnered a lot of public attention.

Here’s the thing: I’m not sure what autism has to do with cake lettering. Maybe I am mistaken, but it sounded to me like a customer made a request and a bakery employee fulfilled that request to the best of her ability (in cake lettering, remember). According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), autism is defined by persistent deficits in social communication and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior, interests or activities. In other words, this employee’s cake lettering ability (or lack thereof) is more likely attributed to her inexperience with cake lettering than it is to her diagnosis of autism. So why is this employee “not supposed to write on cakes?” Why was it that the customer “probably made her day” by accepting the cake? Why was the customer heralded for smiling and thanking the employee? Why are we blowing up social media about this? I have to believe all the questions would be answered with, “Well, because the employee has autism.” Would this social media post even exist if the employee didn’t have autism or the customer wasn’t made aware of her diagnosis?

As a society, we have made leaps and bounds in the short number of years since the civil rights movement for persons with disabilities. We continue to work on this as we see marked increases in the prevalence of many diagnoses, including autism. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently estimate about 1 in 68 American children have been identified with autism spectrum disorder. I ask you to consider how many people might be employed at your favorite supermarket. Do you think it’s probably somewhere around or greater than 68 people? If so, you could venture to guess that one of those employees is someone who has autism.

In this story, it was the bakery employee, just doing her job. All the children who have autism will be adults who have autism. We will be transformed as a society whether we plan for this or not. Inclusion of and exposure to persons who carry autism diagnoses will be commonplace in our communities, and it’s time to start practicing true kindness. To me, that means respect. I can’t imagine the cashier thanking the customer, taking photos of a cake and creating a viral social media post because the woman who lettered it is going through a divorce. That employee’s diagnosis is private and personal, and it has nothing to do with her abilities in the bakery.

Despite all my misgivings about the nature of the post and the general public reaction, I’m so glad this photo went viral on social media. I hope that bakery managers across America will see this photo and strike up a conversation with their employees about opportunities for training in cake lettering and other bakery duties. I’m sure there are many employees, those with autism and those without, who are eager to learn a new skill and expand their resumes.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

Originally published: December 2, 2015
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