Red Headphone Cupcakes


Red Headphones for AutismApril is Autism Acceptance Month. Orchestrated by Paula Durbin-Westby in 2011, the first celebration of this special month was devised to shift the focus from autism awareness to acceptance. Typical autism awareness campaigns of late are often times insensitive and maligning to the autism community. It was natural progression then, to affirm a positive light on autistics and autism.

The following story was first published in August of 2011. As we are now halfway through Autism Acceptance Month it’s an ideal time to share it again; to go back to the shift when acceptance gained momentum.

Autism acceptance has a long way to go. But the account of how a town embraced one of its own is a fine example of how it can be done. Read on…

Fondant Red Headphones

Nearly twenty-five years ago John and Lori Horton said, “I do.” But today, as their Silver anniversary approaches, the couple will renew their wedding vows at three o’clock in the afternoon on the water’s edge of a San Diego beach. Though I’ve only known John for several months, I feel as though I’ve known him and his family for many years.

Mr. & Mrs. John Horton

Mr. & Mrs. John Horton, 1986

With John at the helm, he and Lori are the heart and soul behind RED HEADPHONES FOR AUTISM, a community page on Facebook. The premise of the community is simple: Promoting autism awareness and acceptance through a fun and positive life filled with love and autism, it’s not always perfect but its life. …But it’s life, the one simplistic qualifier that says it all. Life is, after all, experience. And while we are all unique individuals, we often times have similar experiences. Whether the experiences bring joy, make us sad, move us forward or take us a giant leap backwards, they are moments in our lives on a ticking timeline. It is in the sharing of these experiences that we build communities, a scaffolding of human bonds that holds us together, holds us up.

Headphone Fabrication

The autism community—individuals, their families & friends, educators, therapists et al who live with autism, relies upon the support of its members for a better quality of life. A life where uniqueness is celebrated, where different is beautiful and the gifts embedded within the individual are proudly displayed and utilized as a productive, contributing participant in society. But to be aware of autism is not enough. Autism must be embraced through global acceptance which is free from judgment and criticism.

9 Fondant Headphones

John and I met via Facebook through mutual friends of a similar autism awareness page. It didn’t take long for us to bond as we are fathers of autistic sons—that, and he’s a genuinely nice guy. Many of you have met my son Devin in previous posts, but you haven’t met John’s son, Derek, who is the inspirational source for Red Headphones for Autism. Derek is a young man of 20 who has an affinity for red headphones. Red headphones and Derek are as synonymous as Sinatra and the Fedora. And what a glorious shade of red they are too!



As the story goes, in the community where the Horton’s live, Derek is popular among the citizens who easily recognize him by his signature red gear when he’s out and about the town. Folks warmly embrace Derek, often calling him by name, with a smile and a friendly wave. And while Derek may be short on words, I’m told he’ll return a twinkly smile to passersby. Was it easy for Derek in establishing himself in society? Of course not, but the strides he’s made to date is attributable to his family and friends among townspeople who are willing to accept Derek for who he is—a young man who has the capacity to love, to emote feelings, has interests, fears, desires and contributions to make no matter how big or small just like anybody else. Do challenges lie ahead for Derek? Yes, however in a community where acceptance is well underway, I suspect those challenges might be a bit easier to tackle with that level of support in place. It’s no wonder then that red headphones were chosen as the symbol of Red Headphones for Autism.

Red Velvet Cake Batter

This past spring when John posted a status update mentioning summer plans to come to California including a stop in my area, I smiled at the thought of visiting with him and his family. A couple of direct messages and a few months later, that day came this past Sunday at the California State Railroad Museum in historic Old Sacramento—one of Derek’s favorite places. As we approached the museum entrance, it was easy to spot our friends, not from physical identifiers as one might think, but from the familiar vibe of the party of three waiting for the door to open.

John & Brooks

John (L) and Brooks (R), August 7, 2011

While our visit was everything I had hoped it would be, friends sharing a good time, swapping stories of our children and life experiences, the Old Sacramento location was not the only historic thing happening that day—this particular day marked the occasion of friends meeting face-to-face for the very first time, but the union was as if we had known each other for many years.

Red Velvet, Red Headphone CupcakesIn meeting my friends for the very first time, I knew I wanted to bring something special. So I quickly settled on an idea to express my appreciation for them, something that would elicit a smile. And that’s exactly what these delicious cupcakes decorated with the symbol that stays close to their hearts did. While it was Facebook that brought us together, it’s the ensuing friendship we share that will keep us that way. 


Prep Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 2 hours

Yield: About 30 standard size cupcakes

Serving Size: One cupcake


Red Velvet Cupcakes are enormously popular and the flavor afforded by this recipe makes it easy to understand why. They were the perfect cupcake to showcase the red fondant headphones. Enjoy!

Adapted from McCormick.


  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup cake flour
  • 1/3rd cup unsweetened dark cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1 ounce liquid red food color (usually a full standard bottle - check content weight)
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • Frosting:
  • 1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, softened
  • 1/4 cup (half stick) unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 tablespoons sour cream
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 pound (1 box or 16 ounces) powdered sugar
  • Fondant Red Headphones:
  • About 1/3rd pound prepackaged white fondant
  • Red gel food color
  • Black gel food color
  • A teaspoon of corn syrup and a small, clean paint brush
  • Tools & equipment for coloring, rolling, cutting and shaping fondant


  • Preheat the oven to 350˚F.
  • Mix the flours, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl; set aside.
  • Using an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar in a large bowl on medium speed for about 5 minutes. The mixture will become pale in color and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, blending well after each addition. Mix in the sour cream, milk, food color, and vanilla. Gradually add the flour mixture in two to three parts blending on low speed until just incorporated. Scrape the bowl after each addition. Carefully spoon the batter into paper-lined muffin pans filling each cup 2/3rds full, but no more.
  • Bake 18 to 20 minutes. The cupcakes are done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool the cupcakes in the pan on wire racks for about 5 minutes, then remove them from the pans to cool completely on the racks.
  • Meanwhile make the frosting. Beat the first 5 ingredients in a large bowl with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Gradually beat in the powdered sugar until smooth and creamy.
  • For the headphone decorations, color half the fondant in red gel food color, the other half in black. The amount of gel used depends upon how deep you want the color. Use food safe latex gloves to knead the color into the fondant until the hue is uniform and there are no streaks. Wrap the fondant tightly in plastic while not in use.
  • To make the red ear pieces, I pinched off a small ball of red fondant pressing it into a 1/4 teaspoon measuring spoon that was lightly swabbed in vegetable oil. This helped to attain the rounded shape I wanted and allowed for uniformity. Gently prick the formed shaped out of the measuring spoon―a toothpick is handy here. Don't be concerned about prick marks on the flat side, they will be covered. Reshape if needed. Set the red pieces aside to firm up by air drying for a couple of hours.
  • Roll the black fondant to slightly more than 1/8th-inch thick. Cut 3-inch long strips of the fondant that is uniform in width. These will be the headband parts. When you've cut enough headbands to accommodate the ear pieces, roll the remaining black fondant to a thickness to about 1/16th of an inch. Use the wide end of an icing decorating tip to cut circles as close to the same diameter as the measuring spoon. Gently poke the round cut piece out by inserting a toothpick into the opposite decorating end of the tip. You will need as many of these black round cut outs as you have red ear pieces.
  • Lay two red ear pieces rounded side down and about 3 inches apart onto your work surface. Lightly brush the flat side with corn syrup (this helps the pieces to adhere). Bridge the two pieces by placing a 3-inch headband across from ear piece to ear piece. The ends of the headband should hit the center of the ear pieces. Gently press the bands onto the ear pieces. Lightly brush the pressed headband ends with corn syrup. Place a black round cut out directly over each ear piece sandwiching the ends of the headbands in-between. Gently press the round cut outs into place, sealing around the circumference edge of the headphones as best possible. If desired, tool the surface of the black round cut outs for added headphone detail.
  • Leave the assembled headphones lying flat on a solid surface to air dry for about an hour. If you don't have plastic tube racks designed for fondant/gum paste shaping, use an empty cardboard tube from a paper towel roll that has been covered in foil or plastic wrap. One at a time, gently lift an assembled headphone (they will still be pliable, but more firm than when they were put together) and drape it over the cardboard tube. The red ear pieces should be on the outside and they should suspend evenly over each side of the tube. Allow these to dry undisturbed overnight and loosely covered. Prepared headphones may be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for 48 hours until ready to use. Do not freeze.
  • Assemble the cupcakes. With a filled decorating bag fitted with a large round tip and holding it at 90⁰, pipe a steady stream of frosting directly over the center of each cupcake until the frosting flows near the edge. Stop the flow and lift the tip to get that pointy curl. Place a headphone on top of each cupcake. If not consuming them right away, store cupcakes in an airtight container in the refrigerator, but return to room temperature before serving.

Here are additional resource links for terrific information regarding autism:

Rethinking Autism

Autistic Community Activity Program

Autism Women’s Network

Autistic Self Advocacy Network

Laura Shumaker

The Coffee Klatch

Judy Endow

Stuart Duncan


  1. What a special story, Brooks. Thank you so much for sharing it. I have several friends who have children with autism and yes, I agree that our goal should be acceptance, not just awareness. Bravo.

  2. Wonderful, Brooks! Aside from the great Red Headphones story, isn’t it just amazing how bonds forged via the Internet seem to translate so perfectly into real life?! When you finally meet face to face, it really does feel like you’ve known them forever. What a special story!

    • Brooks Walker says

      It does translate Jenni, the example of social media here has ripples of greatness. I look forward to the day we meet in person—cheers my friend!

  3. Oh my goodness do I have tears in my eyes! Happy tears though my friend. This is such a heart warming story and so beautifully written. I have fallen in love with the meaning behind the “Red Headphones”. Thank you so much for sharing this special story with us Brooks! 🙂

    • Brooks Walker says

      My pleasure Niki, and thank you! I’m delighted the story’s message came through.

  4. I do admit that at a glance these itty bitty headphones have got to be the cutest things ever. Now that I know a little about the story behind it, they are a symbol. I love the internet for bringing together people that can support each other and become very good friends.

    I think that before the internet was widely used many of us felt a little alone and singled out, but thanks to social media and all that fun stuff we really can make an even bigger difference. Thanks for sharing this story with us!

    • Brooks Walker says

      You’re welcome Dionne. My gratitude goes to you for taking the time to read the story.

  5. I sure would like to reprint this on the Autism Acceptance Day blog! Let me know if you would like for me to do that. I typically do reprints by copying and pasting all material and then linking to your original post. Great story about Derek’s community and you meeting your friend. 🙂

  6. Lori Horton says

    Thanks for reposting this story. I am going to share it with all my friends, And by the way, the cupcakes tasted fantastic. We put 4 out of the 8 headphones in our refridgerater and they are still there. We will treasure them and the time and thought behind them for the rest of our lives. Our family loves you and your family!!

    • Brooks Walker says

      You are most welcome Lori, it was my pleasure. My hope is the story reminds us all that acceptance is key to making change in the right direction. Love and hugs from NorCal!

  7. Brooks, what an amazing post. As a Speech Therapist, and as someone who lives with my brother-in-law who THRIVES every day as a person living with Autism, I cannot thank you enough for sharing. And thank you for the link to Red Headphones for Autism.

    Also, thank you for cake. Because some of the smallest joys in life make the biggest impact.

    • Brooks Walker says

      I’m much obliged, Jen. Thank you for all the work you do in speech therapy and as a member of the community.

  8. I remember these amazing cupcakes the first time around…and again your post brings the need for acceptance to the forefront. As the mom of a child with a disability, I love your message. Bless you for being an advocate for all those with special needs.

  9. Those are truly wonderful creations…not only because they looks so cool, but because the thought and the cause behind them. Pinned. Bravo!

  10. OMG! Its looks AMAZING!

  11. I am in awe of your skill and talent with fondant, Brooks. This story and the meaning behind the red headphones touched my heart. We all love our children dearly and want the best for them, whatever the obstacle. Acceptance is key and knowledge is power! I love that you are using your talents and social media to make a difference and educate us all. I also love that this internet, which can be cold and cruel, can also be used for good. You are the man!

  12. Brooks,
    What a wonderful story of common causes bringing families together. What an amazingly selfless gesture of the cupcakes with the iconic red headphones. Derek reminds me of my cousin Tim, also autistic, some 25 years ago. Tim is the same age as I am, and though I was around him growing up, I hardly know him. 45 years ago no one was aware of autism and my aunt & uncle struggled to find resources for Tim. Today he has many resources and parents of children facing this do as well. Thank you for sharing, and thank you from my family.

    • Brooks Walker says

      You’re welcome, Amy. You’re so right to mention the the resources available today brought about by dedicated professionals, families and friends who are committed to bringing about positive change. Please give my regards to your family, and thank you for the lovely comment―it’s great to have you here!

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