Cooking is a great way to connect, bond, interact, connect, and teach important life skills to any child. Though it can be especially beneficial to cook with a child with autism.
In general, cooking encourages children to try new things, as they’ve invested in the process and want to experience something they created. It can even help your child to want to expand their cooking skills and take more personal responsibility for their self-care.
At the same time, cooking can also help a child with autism to learn how to follow specific steps. This can translate into base processes that they can adapt later to help master other simple skills. All while allowing you to strengthen your mutual communication and bond.
Of course, there are several important things to consider, such as safety, food prep, and preventing problems with cross-contamination. You can use the following tips to start cooking with your child with autism.
Safety First in the Kitchen
Safety is always critical when you start cooking with any child. You know your child best and you should base your safety considerations on their current skills and food safety awareness. Safety also tends to break down into different categories.
Knife & Tool Safety
Knife and tool safety is always a top priority anytime you are cooking with a child. Especially a child with autism, who might not be aware of just how sharp some things are.
If you feel confident that your child has the motor skills and manual dexterity to use a knife, but you are worried about the risk of them cutting themselves in practice, you might want to start with soft items and a butter knife. Even something as simple as cutting an egg in half to make deviled eggs can be an empowering experience for a child with autism.
As part of the teaching process, also make sure they understand that there are some things they can do themselves, such as stirring a bowl or halving a hard-boiled egg. Then make sure there are other things like sharp knives and tools like the food processor that only an adult should use.
Food safety is also a critical component of cooking for a child with autism. This includes reminding your child to put cold things back in the freezer and refrigerator as well as preventing foods like raw chicken from touching other foods like salad mix.
Stove & Oven Safety
Using a frying pan, stove top, boiling pot of water or a hot oven all come with the risk of burns. Even something as simple as opening the oven door and sticking their face in front of it before the wave of heat completely escapes can be enough to put off a child with autism. Making sure your child understands what is hot and how to keep from getting burned is just as much about safety as it is about keeping them encouraged for the next time you ask them to cook with you.
How to Assess Your Child’s Cooking Abilities
As you likely know, autism spectrum disorder can manifest different symptoms in different children. Making sure your child is safe in the kitchen requires an accurate assessment of their skills, manual dexterity, motor skills, mobility, communication, and comprehension.
While you certainly know your child best, it’s still a good idea to coordinate with their ABA therapist and/or occupational therapist to get the most accurate possible gauge of their initial cooking skills.
Consider Your Child’s Preferences
When you’re first starting out teaching a child with autism about cooking, it helps to start with something they like. For instance, let’s say your child loves scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast. You might have them butter the warm toast after you take it out of the toaster. They could even stir the milk and eggs before you fry them in the hot pan.
As time goes on, you can start using these familiar, preferred foods as a bridge to get your child to try new foods. This might mean replacing butter on the toast with avocado. It might mean adding bits of ham and cheese to the egg mixture to make their own omelet.
Simple skills like spreading butter on toast can also be used as a starting point for your child to make other foods for themselves. Such as their own peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Using Visual Prompts
Some children with autism are better visual learners. Giving them recipes with large visually engaging pictures or step-by-step illustrated instructions might be a better way to get them started than you giving them verbal instructions.
If possible, you might want to find a video of someone making a specific recipe that your child likes, then have them watch the video before making the recipe. A lot of children with autism do better when they see how a task is completed as opposed to reading or seeing a 2D image.
Use Prompts While Cooking
A lot of the ABA therapy techniques that children with ASD are used to receiving are rich with prompts. This is a learning comfort zone for them that you can replicate easily in the kitchen.
This might involve using one or more of the following prompting techniques:
- Verbal prompts to explain how to do something.
- Visual prompts to help illustrate specific steps.
- Physical prompts help guide your child through a particular step in the process.
- Gestural prompts such as pointing to tell the child what to do, or what ingredient to use.
- Positional prompts where you strategically place specific items in the order that they will be added to the mixing bowl.
Keep It Fun & Positive
When cooking with a child with autism the overall mood of the experience is key. Even if things go wrong, keep a positive attitude. Let your child know that mistakes are normal and that even you make mistakes when cooking sometimes.
Normalizing that failure is a completely acceptable option helps keep their expectations positive and introduces a willingness to keep trying. This is a theme and attitude that will serve them well in future skill development challenges.