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Communicating Through Cupcakes

July 7, 2011 23 comments

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.

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