Home > In Their Own Words > Communicating Through Cupcakes

Communicating Through Cupcakes

This is by Lena Rivkin, M.F.A., is an artist and graphologist living in Los Angeles.

Can you count the stars? Impossible! It’s just so comforting to look up and see that they are there, that you can count on them coming out every time. That pretty much describes the way I feel when I’m hanging out with Phillip at his house…when we’re baking cupcakes together. I look up at his face flushed with joy and watch as he adds the final touches – sprinkles, maybe – to the icing of his latest creation. In a fast-paced world, baking with Phillip is a quiet moment in time.

​For those of you who read my previous article about him, you’ll remember that my older brother Phillip, who is severely autistic and nonverbal, loves to stitch needlepoint. I create the designs and Phillip is the craftsman. Our collaboration provides a special connection between our worlds – without words. He has been living for 29 years in a group home administered by New Horizons (a non-profit organization dedicated to helping adults with developmental disabilities) in North Hills, California, and attends a day program at Tierra del Sol in Sunland.

​Since Phillip always exhibits a marked interest in repetitive behavior, for years we have engaged in needlepoint projects together at my house. And lately, we have been hanging out at the place where he lives to bake together.  We particularly enjoy baking cupcakes.  Historically, a recipe for a small cake first occurred in the U.S. in a cookbook appropriately titled American Cookery. It was written by Amelia Simms in 1796. However, the actual word cupcake (because it’s the size of a teacup) was first used in 1828 by Eliza Leslie inSeventy-five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats. When Phillip and I bake cupcakes in 2011, we are entering into an innovative space where we can create an edible form of art.

​First we line each section of the muffin pan with crinkly, colorful paper cups, a simple, repetitive process that Phillip enjoys. Then we make a host of cupcakes, ranging from…oh, red velvet cupcakes with vanilla cream cheese frosting or pineapple-carrot, or dark chocolate with raspberry frosting. (Did you know that the height of the frosting should be about one-third the height of the cupcake? Sometimes, when we are feeling really daring, we make the frosting one half of the whole. It’s fun.) And we make strawberry and chocolate-almond, lemon-fudge, or orange-spice cupcakes too.

​The ingredients for cupcakes are all pretty much the same: butter, sugar, egg, and flour just like a standard layer cake. Yet what we end up with is a creation. For my birthday, we felt really expansive and made a full-size chocolate cake. We design our cupcakes differently every week, even though we start with a very ordinary cake mix. Sometimes we dip dried or fresh fruit into chocolate. The visual effects are very important, just as they are when Phillip is keeping busy translating my designs into his meticulously crafted needlepoint. In fact, while the cupcakes are baking, he works on his needlepoint.

​As with the needlepoint, there is a therapeutic process at work when we are baking. It involves eye and hand coordination as well as the joy of creation – and a sense of place. Although I still take Phillip to my house and other places (museums, parks, stores, and visits to friends), when we make cupcakes, we are enjoying being together in a consistent way in the place where he lives – his house. I feel that I am truly participating in his daily life with these home visits and learning about his activities, as well as the chores that are required of him. I particularly enjoy getting to know the outstanding staff – Samir Qureshi (the House Manager, who is also an excellent cook) and another member of the staff, Jamie Page, who are both an essential part of our weekly baking activity with their supportive and positive help with the baking.  I am also becoming closer to Phillip’s friends.  Everybody loves eating the cupcakes, so there is plenty of joy to pass around! Because the cupcakes bake quickly, while a tantalizing aroma fills the house, we don’t have to wait long to enjoy them.

​Cupcakes have attracted wide interest today. In fact, cupcake-making has become a competitive “sport.” There are actually “cupcake wars” sponsored by food companies where people vie on television to win big prizes for the “best” cupcake recipe. But Phillip and I, his friends and the supportive staff don’t want to enter our cupcake recipes into showcase competition. We simply love the warmth of making them and sharing them in friendship together.

“In Their Own Words” is a series within the Autism Speaks blog which shares the voices of people who have autism, as well as their loved ones. If you have a story you wish to share about your personal experience with autism, please send it to editors@autismspeaks.org. Autism Speaks reserves the right to edit contributions for space, style and content. Because of the volume of submissions, not all can be published on the site.

  1. July 8, 2011 at 7:48 am

    I love this story! Thanks for telling it:)

  2. Laura Taylor
    July 8, 2011 at 9:39 am

    I found this article touched my heart. My daughter Julia who is 8 years old and was diagnosed with PDD-NOS at age 3 also LOVES cupcakes. She LOVES to make them, LOVES to decorate them and LOVES to eat them. Even though she has a very limited diet she had always loved cupcakes. She loves them so much that when the infomercial for the giant cupcake came on TV she repeated it for weeks and begging for one. On a trip to a local store we got to the checkout and to my surprize we had one in our basket. (We often end up with extra items Julia has snuck into the basket. This past Christmas I set up a baking center for her. I used a bakers rack that was just collecting stuff. The whole family pitched in getting her children’s cookbooks, aprons, oven mits with cupcakes on them, cake mixes and toppings, and a variety of cooking utencils and pans. She really enjoyed the mini-cupcake pan. They even got her a cupcake stand to display her creations. It has become a weekend bonding time for the whole family, especially her twin sister. I help them with the baking, they do the decorating, and dad eats them. She has learned to use a measuring cup, crack eggs perfectively, read directions on the boxes and cookbooks, and use the oven with supervision. It’s funny she just asked me last night if we could make cupcakes this weekend. I have often worried if she could one day provide for herself. I now think she might have a future as a baker. If not, at least she won’t go hungrey. She can feast on CUPCAKES.

    • Lucy
      July 8, 2011 at 3:42 pm

      I loved your comment… Mia 5 is so much like yours. Even though, because of work I have no time for baking she enjoys doing it with her live in grandmom. I also end up with baking trays and all kinds of decorations at the checking out register of hobby lobby hahahaha…

  3. Jennifer
    July 8, 2011 at 11:46 am

    I would love to see some of the needlepoint via pics with Phillip and yourself. Also perhaps an example of the graphic that you provide for the needlepoint. Can you relate more abou the life and job as a graphologist?

  4. July 8, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    A truly wonderful story, thanks for sharing it. God Bless you and Phillip and your loving and supportive relationship. I have an 18 year old son with autism and a 21 year old typical daughter and I marvel and their special bond. You have that with Phillip and I can see how it enriches both your lives, just like my son and daughter. You are a special woman.

  5. Astrud
    July 8, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    Thank you very much for telling your story. I´m really amazed and it touches me.
    I am a trainee in handicapped care attendance [Soziol.] and always happy about new ideas and this was a good one.
    And I just learned a lot of autistic people yet.
    I wish you all the best…and take care for you.
    Yours sincerly

  6. Suzanne B.
    July 8, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    As the mother of a child with mild ASD and an employee of a nonprofit that creates homes and communities of friendships like the one where your brother lives, I am deeply touched by your story. The struggles that families face with autism are real and true, but it warms my heart when someone relates the simple and pure joys that can also be found in this life. You and your brother are fortunate to have each other to love, support, and share life with. Thank you for sharing. And, I agree with Jennifer, I’d love to see some examples of your needlepoint!

  7. Lucy
    July 8, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    I loved this article… Thank you for sharing. My 5 year old loves baking, baking magazines and makes cup cakes and cakes with her grandmother. I can see true potential for sucess in her future . Who knows, perhaps one day she can be the owner of her own bakery or a specialty cake designer… we have to concentrate on the potentials rather than the barriers.
    Thanks again.

  8. Maria Vaz
    July 8, 2011 at 5:03 pm

    I really enjoyed the article and everyones’s comments. My son Joey now 18 (PDD/autism) has always loved cupcakes. With the exception of vanilla pudding (only Snackpak kind) and ice cream, cupcakes are pretty much the only other dessert he’ll eat. His diet is very limited. As he grew older, I’ve let him bake with me and he thoroughly enjoys it, especially the frosting part. Its funny how they all seem to really enjoy cupcakes. Thank you everyone so much for sharing, sometimes the world of autism can be so lonely.

  9. Debbie Brooker
    July 8, 2011 at 5:29 pm

    Great story and I would love to share it further in our local autism support group newsletter. Can I have your permission please?? It is both an electronic distributed newsletter and one that is sent in the post, hence why I would like to share it, as some of our members without computer access get to see it then. Thanks.

    • July 10, 2011 at 2:35 am

      Hi Debbie,
      Thank you for your feedback. You definitely have my permission to share my article.
      Best wishes,

  10. Umma
    July 8, 2011 at 7:21 pm

    That was very endearing to read.I personally do not have anyone in my family or immediate circle of friends who deals with autism.My interest was stimulated when my daughter ,who is an elementary school teacher ,began her own personal study on autism after spotting what she believed were the symptoms in some of her students .The first child she self diagnosed parent still has contact with her ,4yrs. later.My daughter never told the parent of this 7 yr. old boy that he was autistic,she simply presented her with the information.(of course this was after the parent asked my daughter,his teacher at that time,if she thought he had any learning disabilities).Sadly to say this child’s parent will not allow him to be tested,though she knows the signs are all there.His struggles will be manifested as he enters middle school this coming fall. Thank you for all you do.Many lives are enriched by the warmth you pour out on not only your brother but those that he has community with.

  11. July 8, 2011 at 9:25 pm

    Lovely! I wanted to concur about the needlepoint (or any other form of hand work). I recall a study in the seventies (I think) that looked at the relationship between fingertip stimulation and the brain. In my experience (I’m now 57) I have really found that to be true. I always have loved to do such things and have watched what actually happens within myself. Somehow, the fingertip stimulation REMOVES myself FROM myself and I can listen or WATCH….Sort-of a BE HERE NOW kind of experience….It is soothing, and I would think that would be very useful for those with Autism, or the care-givers (or simply those who CARE)….

  12. Lisa Stone
    July 9, 2011 at 11:17 am

    I have a three year old grandaughter with autism and can get no help with her. i believe she could talk to us with some speech therapy, but has transitioned out of early care and waiting for funds from gov. we have been waiting for a year for this. the bill passed for care is not any good for my daughters insurance and the baby has medicad which will pay for nothing. we are stuck with nothing. if there is care out there please help. In Joplin Mo.

  13. Pauline
    July 9, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    How wonderful you are. I lost my son to a group home and there is no such thing as communication let alone being able to bake there. We have to pull teeth to hear about anything that goes on. Thank God for assistance and the lovely caregivers who actually care. Phillip is so blessed to have wonderful you. Thanks for the thought of there are nice people out there. Beautiful. I love my Quinn and my heart is with you honey.

  14. vkjourden
    July 9, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    My son is 12 with severe Asperger’s loves to cook, do needlepoint and paint. I agree with many parents that commented about being able to connect with their kids with this. These are the few times, My son and I can really connect during these activities but sadly, none of these skills are taught in local schools today. I really worry about how he is going to support himself later in life being a true renaissance man.

  15. Darla
    July 10, 2011 at 12:18 am

    My 4 year old autistic son also loves to make cupcakes. He bakes them I am his assistant as he knows how it should be done and must be done the same way each time. Your story made me smile as I think about how a simple cake can bring people together in away that only those that can’t communicate in normal ways know. We once got adventrous and made a 3 tiered wedding cake just for the fun of it. 8 hours later he had created something so wonderful I’m beginning to think he might one day be a master baker. Even if he doesn’t I love our time spent together as I know you enjoy time with your brother. :)

  16. July 10, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    I was deeply touched by everyone’s heartfelt comments.


  17. Becky
    July 11, 2011 at 5:38 pm

    Thank you for another heart felt story Lena. I can only hope that my daughter and her little brother have that same connection someday! She is so good with him now! I hope they find something to bond over like that! She loves baking so maybe we should try it! :) God bless! Becky~

  18. Vicki Endris
    July 18, 2011 at 7:39 am

    I am learning so much from people who share about their autism experiences. Like this one. Who would have known about the value of needlepoint? Not me! And I guess the main thing I learn from these wonderful personal stories is that people know that those on the autism spectrum ARE people, just those that we may need to relate to in different ways. Particularly to see family so involved, even with adult members with autism, is wonderful in this world that is often so uncaring. And, yeah for cupcakes!!

  19. Mackay Autism support Group
    July 27, 2011 at 8:51 pm

    As I have your permission to share your article, would love to send you a copy of our newsletter that it is in. Can you please send me your email address to autismmackay@gmail.com thanks.

  20. September 21, 2011 at 5:24 am

    Been looking for blogs to get ideas for my new blog! Yours has a great simple design.

  21. October 24, 2011 at 8:16 pm

    Thanks for this inspiring article. I have a ten year old brother and I love baking with him, I would like to share this article with my parents and friends. Thanks.

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