Children with autism can be taught how to enjoy assisting with meal preparation in the kitchen. Here is a list of ten ways your child can benefit by being involved with meal preparation.
1. Grow your own food
What better way to learn about various food items than to grow your own? Your child with autism can learn to plant his/her own garden. He/She can witness how a single seed can produce a fruit or vegetable. He/She can dig holes in the backyard in a designated area, plant seeds, care for those seeds by watering them, weed, and then harvest his/her bounty. He/She may even be willing to try a specific fruit or vegetable if he/she feels a sense of ownership surrounding producing it.
2. Reading recipes
Your child with autism may feel that cooking something with you is just a fun activity. However, getting him/her to read the recipe and follow it will also assist with developing his/her academic skills in a natural environment. He/She can learn there is a step-by-step process with doing something right. Not only can it expand his/her reading skills, but it can also enhance math skills. He/She can use his/her abilities to count, measure, and use fractions properly in an enjoyable environment.
3. Sensory skills and exploration
Dealing with food preparation is a great way for your child to deal with some of his/her sensory challenges in a safe and relaxing environment. Children with autism can cut open apples, kiwi, grapes, etc. to see what they look like inside. They can knead and twist bread dough to squeeze it between their fingers to sense how sticky it can become. Breaking an egg properly and examining the insides of it may spark their curiosity. Mashing potatoes or mixing items can encourage them to get a little messy without getting in trouble or becoming upset.
4. Developing better fine motor skills
Some children with autism struggle with their fine motor skills. Using cooking techniques can encourage these youngsters to strengthen their fine motor skills without them even realizing they are doing so. Pushing a cookie or biscuit cutter down on dough is a great idea. Learning to spread peanut butter on bread, whisking an egg, pouring milk, scooping ice cream, or peeling an orange with their hands can be an enjoyable activity while enhancing and improving their fine motor ability.
5. Eating healthier
Many parents report that their children with autism can be picky eaters. Children with autism who interact by assisting with the preparation of a food item may be more likely to attempt to taste that item. Coring an apple, washing grapes, or cooking toast may encourage your children to eventually sample one of these items.
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6. Social skills
Many children with autism struggle daily with social skills. Some are better with interacting with adults than their own peer group. Cooking with your child with autism is an excellent time for you to model socially appropriate behaviors and conversations.
Ask your child with autism what the food smells like. Was he/she tired after mashing all those potatoes? Was it difficult to peel an egg? How did the egg feel in his/her hand? Would he/she like to go and share some of his/her pudding he/she made with one of his/her siblings? It allows you an opportunity to engage your child with autism and then encourage him/her to use his/her speech and language skills to interact with others about his/her cooking adventures.
7. Community involvement in the grocery store
Increasing your child’s experiences outside your home will be important as he/she progresses towards adulthood. Your child with autism can learn to make a grocery list. This can improve his/her fine motor skills when writing.
He/She can increase his/her involvement in the community by going to the grocery store while being supervised by you. Challenge him/her to find the items by himself/herself in various aisles. Encourage him/her to approach a store clerk to ask for appropriate assistance.
Check to see if he/she has a realistic understanding of what a food item costs. Ensure he/she uses his/her social skills by thanking the store clerk for bagging his/her items for him/her. A simple trip to the grocery store does not have to be a “miserable” experience for your family. If properly planned, it can yield a wealth of new experiences and skills gained for your autistic child.
8. Better hygiene skills
As your child with autism moves towards adulthood, you’ll want to ensure he/she has developed appropriate hygiene related skills. Autistic children may not want to wash their hands or struggle to see a reason behind doing so. Ask them if they’d rather eat a cookie passed to them by someone with clean hands or with dirty hands. Explain why they must wash vegetables and fruit. If food is dropped on the floor or ground, explain why they should not simply pick it up and eat it. This is also an excellent time to discuss germs and how germs can make you sick.
If food is dropped on their clothing while cooking or eating, explain why they need to wipe the food from their clothing or encourage them to change their clothing. All of these skills can assist your child with autism in understanding that while it might be alright to pick up a cookie with your hands and eat it, doing so with spaghetti would be considered inappropriate.
9. Handling their emotions with errors
The greatest thing about cooking is that it will allow your child with autism to make mistakes. No cook is perfect and sometimes experimenting with a recipe makes it even better. However, your child with autism might be very “rule governed.” He/She may become upset if he/she believes he/she has measured something wrong or forgotten to include an ingredient.
Modeling what to do when making an error is essential for your child with autism during this process. Reassure him/her that lots of people who cook make mistakes. Some people spill milk and some burn cookies, while others drop eggs on the floor. It is simply an error that can be corrected and not something to get extremely upset about.
You can start over and try again. There is no error that can’t be corrected. Remind your child with autism that “small problems” should have “small reactions”. You can even model appropriate language for your child such as “Well, I guess I’ll try again.”
10. Sense of pride and independence
In my opinion, there is nothing more satisfying in life than making your own box of macaroni and cheese, helping to cook a hamburger on the grill with Dad, or making your own lunch.
Children with autism can expand their social skills by making cookies or a cake for an elderly neighbor and then delivering it to him/her. They can show their parents and siblings they are capable of making their own lunches. Autistic children who are involved with making their own lunches may be more likely to also eat that lunch.
Every parent should want his/her child with autism to be as independent as possible as a young adult. Cooking with him/her and involving him/her daily in this process brings him/her one step closer to achieving this goal of independence and self-worth.
This article was featured in Issue 112 – Understanding Diagnosis & Disorders