By Jackie Edwards
Most kids, regardless of whether they are in preschool, elementary, middle or high school, love helping in the kitchen. Not only is cooking a valuable life skill to acquire, but it also teaches a sense of independence and provides children with some control over their diets. While cooking with a child on the spectrum may seem like a somewhat daunting task, it could be immensely rewarding for both of you. Spending time in the kitchen presents many opportunities for counting, following sequences and developing fine motor skills, making the effort to create a sensory environment where a child can safely learn how to cook, truly worth everyone’s while.
Before getting to the fun stuff it is important to highlight the importance of health and safety to your child. There are a number of dangers lurking in the kitchen in the form of sharp knives, hot stove tops and ovens, and cross-contamination between raw and cooked food. Reiterate the importance of washing your hands with soap and water as soon as you enter the kitchen and make sure you have a quality liquid soap and towel available to encourage the process.
Knives need to be handled with care
By keeping sharp objects away from younger children and teaching older ones how to hold a knife correctly, you can prevent nasty nicks and cuts from occurring. Invest in quality knives with non-slip handles to make them even safer to use by everyone in the household. Explain to your children the importance of never mixing cooked food with raw ingredients and remember to buy a set of funky oven mitts for each child so they can safely handle any warm objects without getting burned.
Creating a sensory kitchen environment
It is very important to find a balance between removing all sensory triggers completely and having a few available at the same time. A sensory overload could completely interrupt your child’s focus, taking away the pleasure of the cooking or baking efforts. Different textures can be introduced through various items such as the towel for drying hands on or the beans used when blind-baking a pie crust.
Cooking can be a learning experience
You can also introduce a range of smells, textures and tastes by familiarizing your child with some of the basic ingredients used in cooking. Be careful though to only introduce one or two at a time and make mental notes of those that act as adverse triggers. Try to keep the temperature and lighting in the kitchen well-regulated and any unnecessary noise down to a minimum.
Basic tips for cooking with a child on the spectrum
When starting out your cooking journey, be sure to choose simple recipes of dishes that your child likes to eat. No one really likes cooking something they don’t enjoy eating and this could deter your child from wanting to cook in future. Make sure the recipes you choose are age-appropriate and not simple to follow. Assign tasks that compliment strengths while gently encouraging improvement of other skills as well. Most importantly, as educational as cooking may be, it is important to have fun. Make up games as you go along and allow your child to truly benefit from and enjoy the entire process.
There is not much an autistic child can’t accomplish with a healthy dose of willpower and the gentle guidance of a loving parent. Even if your child does not initially seem too excited about the prospect of cooking (or baking) up a storm, a tender bit of coaxing can soon turn them into passionate young chefs or bakers.
*Now a writer, Jackie Edwards is also a full-time mom to two girls, one of whom is on the autism spectrum. Jackie is also diagnosed with Aspergers. When she’s not writing, she volunteers for a number of local mental health charities and also has a menagerie of pets to look after.
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