Autism is like a cupcake
Last updated on April 8, 2021 by Martin Silvertant
An image based on the tweet below by C.L. Lynch was going around on Facebook, and based on the number of upvotes (1,172 as I write this) and retweets (521), as well as the fact that a screenshot of it was being shared beyond Twitter, I would say it resonated quite strongly with the autistic community. But is it actually a good metaphor for autism?
Imagine if ASD was described like types of cupcake. You have some with icing, some with sprinkles, some chocolate, some vanilla but they’re all cupcakes.
“But how cupcake is it?”
“Like it is a little bit cupcake or severely cupcake?”
“It… it doesn’t work like that?”
— C.L. Lynch (@lynchauthor) March 14, 2019
We are cupcakes
Before I talk about whether the cupcake metaphor is an appropriate metaphor for autism, let me first briefly explain what Lynch’s intended message was—at least based on my interpretation.
Autistic brains differ more from each other than neurotypical brains do, and so it’s no surprise that the expressions of autism are diverse. Yet many people have a narrow conception of autism, either because they are not very familiar with autism, or because they are familiar with autism through an autistic person they know, and they think that is the only way in which autism expressed itself.
Coupled with the fact that many autistic people camouflage their autistic traits,“Putting on My Best Normal”: Social Camouflaging in Adults with Autism Spectrum Conditions (Hull et al., 2017) we are often confronted by people who cannot believe that we are, in fact, autistic.
My experience with confrontation
I was 19 when I discovered I’m likely autistic (then called Asperger syndrome), and so when I told my friends, I honestly expected them to either say that made sense, or be curious to know more about it. Instead, they laughed and called me “Ass burger”. I laughed as well, but I couldn’t help but feel dismissed.
I was finally diagnosed at 25. A few years later, I came to work at a design studio in the Netherlands, where I disclosed my autism. One day one of my colleagues decided to inquire about my autism. He told me he has a nephew who is visibly autistic, which is to say he behaved in a way where his autism was undeniable. Me? Not so much. To other autistic people, my autism may be obvious. But if you don’t know much about autism, you probably wouldn’t expect me to be autistic.
The next moment, my colleague says something to me that many of us have heard at least once, and the very reason for bringing up his nephew to me. “You must not be very autistic, because you’re very capable, unlike my nephew.” I told him that indeed I am capable and function reasonably well in society; I can hold a job, get romantically involved with people, etc.
But what he doesn’t see is the occasional meltdown I have at home. Or the fact that I needed hours to rest after a day of dealing with social relations at work. Only two hours later would I feel up to it to get groceries and eat something, after which I needed even more time to myself. He doesn’t see that I consciously keep my life small, and have a very limited number of friends. Frankly, most of what he sees is a camouflaged version of myself. At home, I may look quite a bit more like his nephew.
And this is what Lynch’s cupcake metaphor is about. Rather than my colleague’s nephew being “very autistic” and me “mildly autistic”, we are both just autistic, with different cognitive abilities, different potentials, different interests, etc. But fundamentally, we are both cupcakes. In that sense, Lynch’s metaphor is a powerful one, which is the very reason it resonated with so many autistic people. It was an attempt to make people realize how silly it is to say one is more cupcake than the other.
It does work like that
On the other hand though, the metaphor also misses the mark. Because when Lynch says “It doesn’t work like that”, I think that is a complete misconception of autism. It works exactly like that.
Autism is not binary. It’s not a case of either you’re autistic or you’re not. But I can see how you might come to adopt that view. Because indeed, an autism diagnosis—or indeed any diagnosis—is more or less binary, based on certain thresholds. Either you’re diagnosed autistic or you’re not. But autism itself is not like that.
Autism is based on hundreds to thousands of genes, and it makes a lot of sense to ask which genes implicated in autism a person has, and to what extent that drives particular autistic behaviors. Indeed one can have more or fewer autistic traits.
Having said that though, I don’t necessarily know that my colleague’s nephew would have carried more “autism genes” than I do. Maybe which genes are active is more predictive of our behaviors and abilities than the number of genes implicated in autism. Maybe certain genes have a more powerful effect on a person’s expression of autism than others.
I’m not suggesting there is necessarily a linear relationship between the number of autism genes and autistic behaviors. Nevertheless, I don’t necessarily have the same number of autistic genes and traits as the next autistic person. So does it actually make sense to insist we are both equally autistic? That we are both equally cupcake?
Analyzing the analogy Lynch is using further, depending on the ingredients you use, there is probably a smooth gradient between a cupcake and, say, bread. I don’t know enough about baking to assess the veracity of that statement. But the point is, there is no clear cut-off between a cupcake and other dough-based products. In this metaphor, the dough would be neurodiversity.
I think it’s easy to ridicule the idea of there being different extents of cupcakeness because we don’t conventionally talk this way; we don’t tend to think of the world in terms of its constituents and fuzzy boundaries, but instead in terms of discrete categories. But this is not what reality is like.
Indeed some people do think the world consists of cupcakes and non-cupcakes, and nothing in between. But I hope you can see that there is indeed a spectrum of cupcakeness. How cupcake am I? I don’t necessarily know. I have some inherent cupcakeness, but my cupcakeness can also vary over time, depend on the day and my mood, and vary depending on people’s perception and understanding of cupcakes.
So can I be a little bit cupcake or very cupcake? Diagnostically, no, you’re either classified as a cupcake or you’re not. But behaviorally, neurologically, genetically, and conceptually? Sure, why not?