Monday, June 6th, 2022

The Walmart candy bin meme: did an autistic kid really tidy it up?

Graphic showing squares moving from left to right, forming various images of a young man sorting bins in Walmart

“A lady took her son to the supermarket…” starts the post. I’m sure you’ve seen it, and variations of it, as it does the rounds. It explains how the son organised a messy candy bin, and how better companies could be if they hired people with “Asperger’s Syndrome”.

A noble cause. Only there is a small problem.

It’s fake.

The image is from 2012 and allegedly originates from two brothers who got bored one Saturday. It took about an hour to sort it, and it prompted a mini-copycat wave. It’s probably why I knew there was something amiss.

Since it was first shared, it’s taken on a life of its own, usually appearing with references to “OCD”. Sometimes it has a witty caption placed across it. You might find the panels separated or together. It’s saved a few hundred times on Pinterest.

A backstory adds credibility

Years later, someone added the “a lady took her son” backstory. It’s told in the first person, more often in the third. The first encourages empathy with the poster, the second adds deniability. There are also witness accounts vividly explaining how amazing the author thought this young lad was.

Somewhere the meme mutated and took on “Asperger’s Syndrome” in place of OCD. The originator’s mother was amused to discover the Internet had diagnosed her son as autistic.

It comes and goes, fading from memory until given new life by some well-meaning soul. This version appears to quote word-for-word a translated article from a Mexican website. They probably got it from somewhere else.

Screenshot of a LinkedIn post about an Autistic Son sorting bins in Walmart, which is a falsification
Screenshot of the LinkedIn post that inspired this musing. The author’s details have been removed.

Let groupthink begin

Once posted, groupthink takes control. Likes and comments flood in, never questioning the authenticity of the message or the harm it might do. The bored lad is transformed from someone having fun to a symbol. We project our own views onto this anonymous person as we spin our own version of the tale.

Dare raise an eyebrow and they will strike you down for being uncaring or “off topic”. Don’t ask what happens when they’re accused of faking autism, something they never claimed.

Meanwhile, the poster basks in reflected glory. They’re inspired to post more content (but only if you follow them and amplify the next deceit).

Screenshot of a LinkedIn post showing the Walmart meme with the poster trying to add to their credibility
Second screenshot taken 24 hours later. Note the addition.

It’s not harmless fun

This is how misinformation is created and gain traction in social media. A half-truth, or something robbed of its context, is shared in a way that makes us want to believe. A positive feedback loop forms: the more people respond, the more likely we are to “believe the lie”.

Yet it is still a lie

Perhaps more important is it feeds into a perception that’s unfair or reinforces a stereotype. Instead of a much needed discussion on support for neurodivergence, we laugh at the joke or virtue signal with our own version of what we think helps. Arguments flare and flounder.

Autism and its ilk are serious issues and we should pay more attention. Perhaps we should stop virtue signalling through random memes and start listening to authentic voices.

My name is Ross Hori

I'm a freelance writer, designer and photographer. By day I create articles, features and reports. At night I take photos and write fiction. Find out more.