Cooking as a family this Thanksgiving can be an enjoyable experience for all parents and children, including those with challenges related to autism spectrum disorder (ASD) such as food aversions or sensory issues. With a bit of planning, the experience can be fun, and help strengthen important skills. The Thompson Autism and Neurodevelopmental Center at CHOC offers these tips for involving children with ASD in the kitchen.
Talk to your child about the importance of food safety and hygiene. Take the time to explain the danger of sharp knives and hot stoves. Demonstrate hand-washing and have your child practice good hand-washing side-by-side with you before handling any food.
Prepare in advance
Before the cooking begins, spend some time explaining new or unfamiliar words that may be used in the kitchen, like the ingredients and tools you’ll be using. Understanding the vocabulary can make the cooking experience more enjoyable for your child.
Avoid sensory overload
Cooking engages all the senses, which may be overwhelming for children with ASD. Try to avoid using noisy appliances or cooking with strong-smelling ingredients. Allow your child to wear food-safe gloves if they are uncomfortable touching foods with different textures. Try to expose your child to one new physical texture, such as gooey pie dough, and make a game of it.
Choose a favorite dish
Children with ASD are more likely to have food aversions. Involving your child in the kitchen is one step toward tasting new foods. Start by cooking something your child loves to eat. This could be as simple as a sandwich or pizza. If your child wants to eat what they are cooking, they are more likely to be engaged in the preparation.
Keep it simple
Try a recipe that is on the simpler side without a lot of steps. If visual supports are helpful for your child, — like they are for many children with ASD, — use pictures to show the steps of the recipe. Avoid too many activities with complex steps or motor tasks if those are challenging areas for your child. Chopping is a simple activity to try, and it’s a good way to improve fine motor skills. To help your child chop, put your hand over your child’s hand to help them maneuver items.
Give your child tasks that complement their strengths. For example, if your child is good at measuring, have them start by measuring ingredients. By mastering the easier skills and gaining confidence, accomplishing the harder task will be a much more enjoyable process.
“Cooking is a skill that can help a child with ASD gain independence as they get older,” says Dr. Tom Megerian, pediatric neurologist and medical director of the Thompson Autism and Neurodevelopmental Center. “It offers a chance for social interaction, lets children feel pride in their work and also may help broaden the range of foods they are willing to eat, as they taste their work. But even more, it is a way for you and your child to connect.”