“I think the treats that we make are unique, especially since they’re made by unique individuals,” says Unique Sweets participant Cristina Torres. “Hence Unique Sweets!”
Torres and her fellow bakers are members of the social enterprise organization Unique Sweets. By baking treats like these cupcakes, which they sell at pop-up events, online, and through social media, the teens and young adults with autism who participate are developing work and social skills. Founder Liza Curiel says there is a place for everyone to contribute in the Unique Sweets kitchen.
“Autism is different for everybody. There’s no two people that are the same or that experience is the same,” says Curiel. “We try to find something for everybody and everybody transitions through all of the process so that everyone has an opportunity to find what they like.”
Curiel started Unique Sweets from her home kitchen in 2018 to help her son Sebastian, who has autism, bridge the gap between school and the working world.
“He had finished high school and he was in city college, but there was like this gap of services that he didn’t have access to and he wasn’t ready to get a job,” she recalls. “And I felt like him and his friends had so much potential. And the story is, they had a party and they all brought baked goods and it just struck me as though this was something that we could combine – use a little project management, some job development or some job skills training and then bake because they like to bake, and it was kind of an instant project.”
Sebastian is no longer in the kitchen, but Curiel says he is still using skills he learned through Unique Sweets to help it grow by working on back-end projects like purchasing and inventory.
“Not everybody wants to pursue a degree in pastry or culinary arts, but whatever you’re going to do, you’re going to have to interact with others. You’re going to have to plan. And what I hope that they get from their time with us is that sense of achievement that they can do it and that they can take those skills and apply them to the next chapter in their life.”
In participant David Figueroa’s case, he found a way to use his art skills to decorate more than cupcakes – he creates custom themed art to top treat packages.
David’s mother Omeida Figueroa says because he is nonverbal, she sometimes found it difficult to find community for him.
“We have had a really hard time finding organizations…where what he enjoys and what he’s able to do is highlighted. And so it made me feel like he had a place, you know, there was something for him he can have. There was a future for him. It made us feel better about our future in terms of his independence.”
Omaida says she, too, has found a sense of belonging through Unique Sweets.
“It’s given me an opportunity to find people that kind of have the same struggles that I do and have the same celebrations that I do, you know? And so it’s giving me a place to also be a part of a bigger community.”
And for baker Cristina Torres, bringing her own unique flavor to that community is helping her flourish. She recalls her first event with Unique Sweets.
“We did the Boricua Barrio Arts Festival in Humboldt Park and we were selling out all those cupcakes, especially the different flavors like coquito, the piña colada, the (parcha). That kind of gave me the indication that where I felt like I’m where I need to be right now.”