Gabe is a young adult with autism. As you get to know him, that description becomes much less important than his bright smile and wickedly sharp sense of humor. If you talk politics or music with him, Gabe will easily offer up his opinions and examples of what he likes via YouTube clips or songs downloaded to his iPad.
He has a part time job at a senior living facility and has watched the chef there make omelets for the residents at the Sunday brunch buffet. He was fascinated by the technique and the resulting dish. Although he could make scrambled eggs, he had no idea how to make an omelet on his own. And he wasn’t about to ask the chef or figure it out with a recipe or a YouTube video.
I doubt that anyone knew of Gabe’s interest in making an omelet until I asked him what dish he most wanted to learn how to make. Without hesitation, he responded that he wanted to make an omelet. So we did. Now, if you go to visit Gabe’s home, he’ll offer you an omelet—or maybe a pot pie, fruit crumble, poached chicken, a salmon burger or arroz con pollo—all dishes that he makes now that he has learned to cook during one of our cooking sessions.
How would you feel about tasting a new dish if you didn’t like to face the unfamiliar? How would you experiment with cooking ingredients if you had visceral dislikes of food textures and flavors? Imagine trying to follow a recipe containing instructions that you just couldn’t manage.
Cooking presents young adults with autism spectrum disorders with many challenges. Still, those with good communication skills and enough self-regulation to be safe in a kitchen environment can discover the benefits and joys of cooking.
Young adults who learn to cook food that tastes good take a huge stride along the path toward independence. That’s true no matter what. Offering food to others and watching them enjoy it—when making connections isn’t easy, as is often the case for those with autism—can turn a newly mastered dish into a triumph of social opportunity. And if cooking turns out to be fun, then what began as learning becomes entertainment, too.
My experience with Gabe and others has taught me a few valuable lessons about coaching those with developmental disabilities. Typical cooking courses begin with skills and a pre-determined group of dishes or a menu that the teacher will demonstrate or the class will make. Students crowd around and those who don’t participate find themselves on the periphery—or just disengage.
When coaching those with an autism spectrum disorder (or any developmental or learning challenge), I take a different approach. First, sessions are one-on-one. I start by asking questions and listening carefully. If you ask about food preferences, food and textures that appeal and those that don’t and inquire about what dishes the student really wants to learn, you’ll learn a lot. Some dislikes come from negative experiences while others may have bases that are far more complicated. Does the person love a particular type of food? Are there ingredients that he or she likes in one form that could be introduced in another form? While individualization like this would be appealing for anyone, for a person with autism it is often a necessity.
Then slowly we move on, using a dish the student really wants to make, to illustrate basic skills. Preparation steps, such as reading a recipe all the way through before beginning or pulling ingredients together before starting to cook, can be boring, but when the student is looking forward to the result, that fact tends to increase their attention span. When we begin cooking, each point along the way provides an opportunity to demonstrate a skill or make a point. Holding a knife safely, how to judge whether butter or oil in a pan is hot, how to hold a pan steady while stirring the contents. We take the time necessary to highlight these types of details. Making the first omelet may take an hour, but with practice, omelets take only a half hour or 15 minutes.
The final step is eating! After all, isn’t that the reason we cook? Tasting his first homemade omelet brought the most incredible smile to Gabe’s face, matched only by his pride as he offered me a bite.
In our first session, Gabe and I worked with no outside distractions. Once we got more comfortable with each other and he began to demonstrate confidence in the kitchen, we began to listen to music of his choosing. (I suppose it’s a good thing that our musical tastes have much in common.) I’m just glad that no one can see our karaoke version of tunes from Les Miserables as we set the oven timer and relax for a few moments.
Top photo courtesy of flickr user nathanmac87