Benefits of cooking with your autistic child

When my eldest son was 16, he told me that he wanted to become a chef someday. And now, two years later, he has followed his dreams and is studying culinary arts. But he’s not the only “chef in training” in our household. My 8-year old, Arif, who is autistic , also likes to spend time in the kitchen, helping me to prepare meals and making his own snacks. 

There are numerous benefits of involving your autistic child  in the kitchen, here are some of them:

1. Encourages sensory exploration

Autistic children  often have sensory challenges that make it difficult for them to touch, smell or taste certain foods. By helping you with food preparation at home, your child can explore their senses in a safe and calm environment. Your child can help with tasks like washing and cutting fruits, kneading bread, breaking and whisking eggs, mashing potatoes and others.

2. Develops fine motor skills

If your child needs extra help with their fine motor skills, you can use kitchen tasks and cooking techniques to help strengthen the muscles in their hands and fingers, as well as work on their coordination. For example, you can teach them how to spread butter on toast, pour milk into a glass, use a cookie cutter on dough, and much more.

3. Encourages better eating habits

Picky eating and problem feeding are common among autistic children. Spending time in the kitchen with you gives your child the opportunity to interact with new food items, which over time can encourage them to sample the foods.  

4. Teaches them how to handle emotions 

Autistic children often like consistency and notice minor imperfections which can make it difficult for them to deal with making mistakes. Preparing a snack or simple meal together gives your child the opportunity to make mistakes and learn how to deal with them. Most importantly, when a mistake does happen, model the appropriate language and actions for your child. For example, you could say, “That’s ok, let’s wipe the spill together,” or “Let’s try again.”

5. Fosters a sense of pride and independence

Cooking offers a valuable hands-on learning experience that helps your child to understand things better and pick up essential life skills. They can learn to do something for themselves and others, as well as show others what they can do. This fosters their independence, sense of pride and self-worth.

6. Develops speech and language skills 

Autistic children often struggle with social skills and interacting with others. Cooking together enables you to engage with your child and model socially-appropriate behaviours and conversations. Here are some ideas of the exercises you can do:

  • Narrate what you / or they are doing
    Say things like: “Mummy is chopping vegetables,” and “Arif is washing grapes!” etc.
  • Teach new words and expand their vocabulary and utterance

You can repeat the word a few times, for example: “Chop! Chop! Chop!” or “Wash! Wash! Wash!” You can expand on what they say, for example, they say, “chop” and you reply “chop vegetables” etc.

  • Model how to say things correctly

If your child says “popato,” correct them without drawing attention to the mistake, for example, say, “Oh, you want the potato? Here’s the potato.”

  • If your child is able to answer basic yes and no questions, ask questions like: 

– Is it hot?

– Do you like it?

You can encourage their answering skills by asking questions like:

– Is it crunchy/ soft?

– What does the food smell like?

– Was it difficult to peel an egg? 

  • Practice sequencing words

While narrating what you are doing together, use sequencing words (first, next, then), for example, you can say:

– FIRST, let’s make the toast

– NEXT, spread the peanut butter

– THEN, we put the pieces together

7. Teaches social skills

Spending time in the kitchen with you or other family members gives your child a chance to work on their social skills, such as teamwork, waiting, turn-taking, sharing, using manners and following directions.

8. Cognitive development

Preparing meals and being hands-on with food can help your child to develop their understanding of nutrition, reading skills (recipes and instructions), math skills (counting and measuring), problem-solving, creativity, understanding of cause and effect, and much more. 

Before you start teaching or involving your autistic child  in cooking, there are a few things to keep in mind. Firstly, take the time to understand your child’s interest, level of ability and manage your expectations. Be aware that cooking involves various sensory inputs, which may be triggering for your child, so be ready to manage sensory challenges. You must also be prepared to show your child how to do something, or give directions over and over. Give them time to process what they’ve just seen or heard. Your child may need to take many small steps over a long period of time in order to succeed, so be sure to give them lots of time to practice, and above all, be patient!

This article was reviewed by Stacey Shah, The Energy Source’s Principal Speech and Language Therapist.

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