As my son, Dylan, progressed in age, height, and weight, it became abundantly clear to me that he needed to learn how to fend for himself in the kitchen and acquire some independent living skills. Ever since he was an infant, his appetite was literally insatiable. It was strange that he would eat, eat, and eat, but never became ill from continuous gorging. It eventually dawned on me that Dylan’s eating issues were sensory-based. I had put together the food/texture issues when he was a preschooler. However, it was not until mid-elementary school that I made the sensory dysfunction lack-of-feeling-full connection. He never felt full. He was, and is, in a state of chronic hunger no matter how much he eats, or how frequently. We also realized that his behavior is greatly impacted by his degree of hunger. Dylan now refers to his stomach as a “diva” who dictates his patience level and general mood. Dylan needed mastery over basic culinary skills, for his sanity and mine.
As was often the case, it was the promise of rewards in the form of favorite foods that coaxed Dylan to engage in an activity that held very little, if any, interest for him. Halloween is one of Dylan’s favorite holidays, and every year, from second grade forward, Dylan and his sister, Laura, would make and decorate a spooky, graveyard cake. Until about sixth grade, it was Laura and I who actually make the cake and readied the decorations. Dylan would participate only in the placement of cookie gravestones and candy fences and, of course, the consumption of the cake and leftover decorations. Both Dylan and Laura observed that decorating a Halloween cake was perfect for Dylan, as “making it look messy and bad actually makes it look better.” I could not argue with the logic of this statement. So, with the exception of the annual Halloween cake, Dylan’s participation in food preparation was furtive and forced.
We began slowly and deliberately with the likes of sandwiches and chocolate milk. Dylan’s fine motor skills have always been below par, so I was familiar with the constant challenges and subsequent frustration that working in the kitchen would bring. Working with knives — cutting, spreading, washing — would require constant vigilance and direction. Mixers, spatulas, and griddles presented yet another set of challenges. This was stacking up to be a long and arduous process for all of us. As a special education teacher, I was familiar with the concept of ‘accommodation versus remediation,’ which basically means that once a skill has been worked on (remediated), but no longer shows improvement, then it becomes time to figure out how to achieve that skill in an alternate way (accommodations). The kitchen was certainly an arena where I would need to be open to figuring out accommodations for his less-than-stellar fine motor skills.
Slowly but surely, Dylan gained confidence and competence in the kitchen. He began slicing bananas with a spoon, as the butter knife was too “wobbly” and he would sometimes inadvertently grab it by the blade instead of the handle. I honestly do not know whether his grabbing it by the blade sometimes was caused by haste or a visual integration problem. All I know is that we did not need a trip to the emergency room for stitches, so working with sharp knives did not occur in earnest until late high school. Spilled milk and other liquid ingredients were a frequent cause of frustration, as was the concept that cooking times were variable and not exact. Often I would resort to placing an old, vinyl tablecloth down on the surface of the table where Dylan was working. That way, I could just fold it over, take it out the back door, and shake it out into the yard. I could attribute most of his difficulties with cooking to fine motor issues, lack of patience, and difficulty with multi-tasking. However, a sensory issue that I should have anticipated, but did not, leapt into forefront in a really frightening way. We were baking his favorite oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, and everything was moving along quite well. Dylan had been practicing each step of the process over and over again. He was now comfortable getting the ingredients out, lining them up, and adding them in a certain order. He had even mastered the art of creaming together the butter, eggs and sugar in a separate bowl. At that point, the only issue we still seemed to be having was Dylan’s penchant for eating the chocolate chips and cookie dough by the handfuls! Mysteriously, as with all of his overeating due to his continuous hunger, he never got sick from indulging this way. Most people would have turned green and been holed up in the bathroom for a long, uncomfortable time, but it never bothered him.
The next step was for Dylan to learn how to place the cookie dough on baking sheets and to take the baking sheets in and out of the oven. We practiced each step, and under my guidance, he triumphantly placed his first batch of cookies into the preheated oven. Life was good. He was even able to weather the ambiguity of cooking time, and performed a visual check at seven minutes, then again at nine minutes. The cookies were ready at the nine minute mark and Dylan accordingly donned the oven mitts and leaned over to pull out the tray of cookies.
“Dylan, quick, put the cookies on top of the stove!” I ordered.
“What’s wrong? Am I doing something wrong?” He stammered and looked confused, still leaning into the oven.
In one motion, without thinking, I yanked his arms up and closed the oven door with my knee. He was still holding onto the cookie sheet, but the flesh on his right forearm was bubbling! As I push him over to the sink and flip on the faucet, I shouted, “Your arm is burned. Don’t you feel that?”
He looked to his arm, then back to me. “It feels weird but it doesn’t really hurt.”
I was incredulous and tried to decide whether to take him to the emergency room or not. His right forearm looked like it had been “grilled” like a hotdog. The discrete marks on his arm from the oven rack are plump, bubbling and discolored. I continued to run cold water over his arm, and asked him what it felt like.
“I don’t know…I guess it feels cold right now because cold water is running over it. Do I have to go to the hospital?” he sputtered.
I could tell that he was beginning to panic. He started to flap his hands and took quick, staccato breaths. “Mom, mom, mom…am I going to be alright? Am I going to have to go to the hospital?”
He increased to full panic mode, and I tried to figure out if we should go to the emergency room. I told him that we both needed to calm down and that he would be fine. I instructed him to do his belly breathing for the next three minutes while the cold water runs over his arm. He stared at the clock and concentrated on his breathing. At the end of the allotted time, I turned off the water and took a look at his arm. The active bubbling has stopped, but huge blisters and “char” marks remained, creating a definitive “grill” mark along his entire forearm. I ask him again if his arm hurts and how much. He hesitated and started poking at it, stating that it still felt weird, but that it really did not hurt. I winced at the sight, stopped him from poking at the wound, told him in calming voice (that was, admittedly more for myself than for Dylan at his point) that he could cause infection if he touched it without washing his hands first. He complied almost automatically.
“Oh no! Will I need a band aid?” I heard the panic creeping back into his voice. Dylan freaks out when band-aids are required.
“No, not a band-aid,” I reassured him. “I think we will put ointment on it and wrap it in gauze.”
He let out a sigh of relief. “Gauze is ok, I can deal with that.”
It took weeks for the burn to heal, but Dylan insisted that it never hurt. The burn left a scar, which serves as a visible reminder of his extreme tolerance for pain.
Ultimately, I was very glad that we both eventually got over the “burned arm” incident and went forward with his instruction in the culinary arts. Amazingly, over the years, Dylan really has become quite a good cook! His signature dish is an exquisite chicken risotto, with mushrooms and chestnuts. In my wildest dreams, I never would have believed that he would be making a variety of meals with ease and pride.
Polly Godwin Emmons is a Special Education teacher and a consultant specializing in Autism Spectrum Disorders and Sensory Integration as well as a Lecturer Casual at Binghamton University and a published author. Polly is passionate about her work, and the proud mother of two adult children, one of whom has Asperger’s syndrome.
Emmons, P. G., & Anderson, L. M. (2005). Understanding sensory dysfunction: Learning, development and sensory dysfunction in autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, learning disabilities and bipolar disorder. London: Jessica Kingsley.
Anderson, L. M., & Emmons, P. G. (2004). Unlocking the mysteries of sensory dysfunction: A resource for anyone who works with or lives with, a child with sensory issues. Arlington, TX: Future Horizons.
This article was featured in Issue 49 – Understanding the People We Love