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A few years ago, I attended an excellent seminar with Penny Gill, President of the Autism/PDD Family Alliance in Southern Ontario. Her presentation, Overcoming the Challenges: Teaching Someone with Autism Spectrum Disorder to Cook Really Well, showed us that you can teach someone with an ASD the important life skill of cooking provided the challenges are understood and the right supports are in place. Penny runs a cooking school out of her home for people with ASD ages 18 and over. Her eight week sessions work on more than just cooking; her students work on social skills, sensory issues, motor challenges and food aversions.
Penny identified 3 core areas for cooking and addressed these in her presentation:
1. Sensory Challenge
2. Fine and Gross Motor Issues
3. Following Directions
Sensory challenges faced in the cooking realm are aversions to certain textures like a slimy texture such as the feeling of raw meat or a peeled hard boiled egg. Penny suggested wearing non-latex medical gloves because they are thin and still provide sensory input. Use an onion slicer with foods such as an egg to avoid having to handle the food item.
If your child is young, try exposing them to play situations with various textures such a Magic Sand or slime to de-sensitize them. (FDMT, one of our regular displayers at conferences, sells all kinds of great products like these). There is a great book called Fun with Messy Play that has all kinds of ideas and recipes for making items to introduce textures.
Certain smells can also be challenging such as onion fumes. People with as ASD are often more sensitive to smells. If onions are a problem, trying using Vidalia or Sweet Collasus onions because they omit less fumes. Refridgerating an onion before cutting it cuts down on the smell too. Penny showed us onion goggles which look like swimming goggles but you can see perfectly fine out of them. They protect the eyes from onion fumes. What a great idea!
Motor challenges tend to be under-addressed and less obvious but paramount to cooking. Lower tone affects forearm strength which is needed for cutting. Underdeveloped fine motor skills affect how a person holds utensils. Problems with gradation impacts how much pressure is needed for different activities such as slicing bread as opposed to a tomato, grating a lemon vs. cheese etc. There is difficulty with modulating pressure, coordination of arm movements like for tossing a salad, and adjustment of movements for a task like peeling an apple. Adapting a movement can be difficult.
These challenges are not insurmountable. They can be addressed by how the skill is taught. Penny suggested doing a physical demonstration beside the person, not in front of them, using line drawings, and verbal prompts or cues on how to perform a task functionally. Hand over hand support can help with movement and gradation issues. Try different types of the same utensil because some work better than others. Don’t remove hand over hand support too early because incorrect motor habits can result. Remember that hand over hand is meant to be supportive and not for forcing a person to do something.
Penny brought up a good point about correcting a person. By the time people with ASD reach adolescence, they are often discouraged by making mistakes because of their long history with them. It is better to provide the necessary support so the person performs the task correctly rather than letting them make a mistake, then correcting them. Penny’s cooking school uses coaches to provide one to one support.
Think about using alternative utensils to ones you know: use a garlic twist rather than a garlic press, use a microplane for zesting rather than the big square grater, peel an orange with a Tupperware Orange Peeler.
Processing information is difficult for people with ASD so be sure to break down a recipe into manageable parts. First list the utensils and appliances needed. Then list the ingredients in their full form, not the way they need to be put into the recipe (ex. rather than say diced, peeled, sliced etc., say one carrot, one apple etc.) Now list the instructions and break them down into manageable steps. Yes – there may be 14 pages for a recipe, but there is also now the chance for cooking independence which is the goal.
How do you handle food aversions and other eating challenges? Find something similar to something they already like. Penny used the example of one student liking spice cake and therefore was willing to try carrot cake. Often an aversion is not to the taste of the food itself but to some other aspect such as presentation or texture. I love eggs but will not eat them poached or soft-boiled because I hate the texture of a soft yolk.
Cooking and sharing a meal is a great way to develop social skills. If a group is cooking in the kitchen, the sharing of ingredients and utensils are going to happen and that requires conversation. Penny had the clever idea of using a clear plastic 2-sided stand, like the ones in restaurants with drink or dessert menus in them, and putting conversation topics inside them. The same topics are visible from each side. Use the stands to display compliments as well because that’s something people with ASD often find hard to do.
Learning how to cook is a skill that can lead to greater independence and possibly a job within the food industry. It can also be a way to make community and family connections. Churches, clubs and organizations have pot lucks, communities have bake sales for fundraisers, and families have get-togethers and ask everyone to bring a dish. What a sense of accomplishment to be able to contribute in a meaningful way!
After hearing Penny speak, I felt empowered and motivated to get my son and daughter more involved with the cooking at home. I think they will be more apt to try a new dish they’ve made themselves. Including them in meal preparation will give them a greater connection with what they are eating while providing them with one more step towards independence.
Visit Penny’s website at www.cookingwithautism.com to learn more about her cooking school, buy her cookbook, and try some of her recipes. Any community could get a program like this going with the right instructors. Penny is also very open and willing to share her ideas.
You can also have a look at The Kitchen Classroom which rates the GF/CF recipes according to level of difficulty.
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