What’s Cooking? Life Skills for Kids with Autism! - Autism Awareness
Happy family. Father and son cooking at kitchen teaching cooking to kids with autism

What’s Cooking? Life Skills for Kids with Autism!

Cooking can be loads of fun to do with your kids. It’s a great way to teach some independence and give your child some control over their diet. For those of us with children on the spectrum, cooking can seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be! Teaching my kids to cook has been one of the more rewarding challenges in my life and offers some great quality time for all of us. I’ve also noticed that my kids are more likely to eat something if they had been involved in the preparation process.

In order to get the most out of the experience for both parent and child, it is important to understand the four main challenges when teaching cooking to kids with autism. These challenges were laid out for me by Penny Gill from her website and lecture Cooking with Autism, and they were essential to our success.

They are:

1. Sensory Challenges
2. Fine and Gross Motor Issues
3. Following Directions
4. Food Aversions

Sensory Challenges: Touch and Smell

Sensory challenges faced in the cooking realm are aversions to certain textures like a slimy texture – 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 many 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 Colossus 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. My daughter wears these goggles in her culinary arts class at school. What a great idea!

Motor Challenges

Motor challenges tend to be under-addressed and less obvious, but paramount to cooking. Lower muscle 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. One suggestion is 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.

An important note 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. One to one support can really help with this.

If your child is having issues with your regular tools, 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.

child on bench

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Following Directions

Processing information is difficult for people with ASD so recipes need to be broken down 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 3 pages for a recipe, but there is also the chance for cooking independence which is the goal.

Be Creative with Food Aversions

How do you handle food aversions and other eating challenges? Find something similar to something they already like. If a child likes spice cake then 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. I do enjoy them scrambled.

Cooking and Sharing a Meal is a Great Way to Develop Social Skills

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 are often asked to bring a dish. What a sense of accomplishment to be able to contribute in a meaningful way!

Learning how to understand and target these challenges made me feel empowered and motivated to get my son and daughter more involved with the cooking at home. Children are more apt to try a new dish they’ve made themselves, thus expanding their food repetoire. By including them in meal preparation, they have a greater connection with what they are eating and it gives them one more step towards independence.

Visit Penny’s website at www.cookingwithautism.com to learn more about her cooking school, buy her cookbook, or 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.

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