Let’s take a moment to appreciate the greatness of food. I have to do this when I consider cooking or baking with our kids because, as an autism family, our relationship with food is shaky at times to say the least. We’re in that continual balancing act of trying to introduce new and somewhat nutritious foods while tiptoeing around food aversions and extreme picky eating.
In our family, we’re always looking for activities that tap into our kids’ unique skills and interests but also offer the potential for growth and learning. While baking can be a great educational bonding activity for any parent and child, as we’ve found, it can be particularly useful for children with autism. This is coming from a guy who’s as unskilled in the kitchen as they come. I’ve just seen enough of the benefits to look past the annual Thanksgiving time reminder of my culinary shortcomings. Our food isn’t being judged on “Master Chef”, and the process is much more important than the final result.
But new things can be tricky in this family. So why would we attempt this? And how?
Getting Through the Barriers
We’ve learned that with most things, we can make efforts to accommodate and create better odds for a positive experience. Often, it’s about making things comfortable before and during the activity. You might adjust the lighting, sound, or think about any other issues that may arise with environmental sensitivities. Since all kids are different, it won’t always look the same. But applying strategies we’ve seen work well with our children in other areas will help us out in the kitchen too.
Initially, it might be helpful to start with foods your child is already familiar with so they can understand what you’re working towards. For us, this seems to increase their engagement. You could think about which utensils you feel safe using so it’ll require less direct supervision or opt for a non-bake recipe for kids who aren’t ready to use the oven (also helpful for dads who aren’t great with the oven).
To avoid confusion and frustration, we like to consider the complexity of the recipe before we try it. For now, we do well with something simple. The vast food internet will surely have something for you, and if not, it doesn’t hurt to tweak things to meet your needs before you present it to the kids. Our recent cookies (baked and decorated to look something like turkeys) required a lot to get from start to finish, but we were able to whittle it down into comfortable steps we could go through on our son’s Goally.
So that’s some of our hows, but what about the why? There are actually a ton of things I like about baking for my kids specifically because they have autism.
Knowing what to expect helps our kids get through their day in general, but in baking it’s also been a…recipe for success. When we’re introducing a new food or a new process, we lean heavily on the comfort of step by step instructions and very few gray areas. Our older son thrives on it, and this, in turn, benefits our younger son who does well with peer modeling.
Trying New Things
I mentioned that it’s good to start with familiar foods, and I stand by that. We find ourselves baking chocolate chip cookies on a semi regular basis. But I wouldn’t let that deter you from using this as a way to slowly introduce new items, maybe even healthy ones, onto the menu. If the kids are reasonably involved in the process, it could help open the door to trying new things. I’ve seen it with my own eyes!
There are so many tasks involved in the process of completing a recipe. Lots of them are challenging for our boys, but since they’re usually enjoying themselves, they don’t seem to notice that they’re actually working and improving their motor skills. It can be gross motor, like navigating around the kitchen and getting things we need from cabinets, or fine motor, like using utensils for the things that require more precision. Even if the food turns out gross, that’s fine by me.
When it comes to our kids’ development, the two things we think about most are happiness and independence. Watching our older son in particular, he displays a lot of joy and pride when he’s able to do something independently. For him, the two are connected.
With cooking and baking, he’s learning what specific utensils are for and how to use them safely to create meals. That’s incredible to me. As these skills grow, the hope is that he’ll be encouraged to take it to the next level and have the confidence to do so. He’s building some of the skills essential for self-care and maybe even some that are relevant to future employment.
The best social interactions we’ve had with our kids have emerged from genuine engagement in a shared activity. I was initially skeptical and thought there was no way baking would do that for us. Luckily, as is often the case, I was wrong. Instead, we’ve seen a natural interest that’s led to some great interactions.
That works well in a quiet setting at home, but it’s hard to know if it will translate into the big noisy world.
Picture this scene:
We’re at a super loud birthday party where I have to lean forward to hear what someone standing three feet from me is saying. I hear the screams of children in the distance but there’s no way to know if they’re happy or sad screams or whose child they’re coming from. It’s overwhelming for me, but more overwhelming for our kids.
Enter the birthday card my kid made earlier that day (another activity they enjoy). They love to show off their work to whoever the card recipient is, even if that means braving a noisy, crowded room at the party. And there’s an unmistakable look of pride in those moments. It helps them cope to have that positive emotion when surrounded by commotion. I dare say we can apply the same idea to baking something for a family Thanksgiving gathering.
We’re not going to see all of these potential benefits every time we put an apron on, but that doesn’t mean the activity was a failure. I’m hoping for more of a long term success that exposes my kids to what goes into making the things they eat and increases their overall comfort level with food to open them up to the many food-related experiences that life will offer them.
And the best (and cheesiest) part, which I haven’t even mentioned yet, is that it’s just fun. At the end of the day, that’s enough of a reason to give it a go.
Luke is the proud father of two boys on the autism spectrum and the creator of “Vincentville,” a family YouTube channel promoting autism awareness and the value of different.
Editor’s note: This information is not meant to diagnose or treat and should not take the place of personal consultation, as needed, with a qualified healthcare provider and/or BCBA.