Cooking with Children with Autism

Cooking can be a great way to interact, connect, and teach necessary life skills to children with autism. Some kids might even want to expand their cooking skills and will be interested in learning more advanced cooking skills. We’ll cover some recommendations for how you can support your child’s cooking skills.

How to Get Started

Safety First

The first thing to note is that the recommendations that we will discuss are only general recommendations. You, as the parent, should consider whether these suggestions are appropriate for your child. For example, it just wouldn’t be safe for some kids to learn to make scrambled eggs on the stove if they are not able to follow simple directions or if there is even a small chance that they will touch the hot burner or put themselves at risk of injury in some other way.

Independent Living

It is also worth noting that encouraging cooking skills in children, particularly those with autism, is a great way to support a child’s independence in their childhood and also to help set a foundation for independence later in life. Kids who go into adulthood with the ability to make meals and snacks have already gained an important skill to being able to take care of themselves – whether they live at home with a caregiver or live on their own without a caregiver.

Assess the Child’s Abilities

Another thing to consider when teaching children with autism to cook is whether the child can understand measurements or if this is a skill that needs to be improved. For example, some children might have difficulty with recipes that use “tbsp” or “tsp” to represent tablespoon or teaspoon. Some kids might struggle with measurements like ⅓ (one-third) or ¼ (one-fourth). When helping kids with autism learn to cook, be sure to consider the specific skills they need to complete a particular recipe.

Incorporating the Child’s Preferences

When teaching children with autism about cooking or working on getting them to be more independent with preparing specific foods, consider what the child likes to eat. When teaching kids with autism, incorporating their interests and preferences will make it much easier for the child to learn a new skill and will also make it more likely that they will be interested in what you are trying to teach them.

An example of incorporating a child’s preferences in teaching cooking skills is for a child who likes to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. This child could be taught to make his own peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Tips to Start Cooking with Children with Autism

Using recipes & visual supports

One way to introduce children with autism to cooking is to provide very basic, easy-to-follow recipes. This can be something printed off the internet or it can be made by a parent, educator, or therapist. The idea is to provide simple instructions, preferably with pictures representing each step, that the child can follow to make a particular meal or snack.

An example of this could be teaching a child to make a bowl of cereal. A picture book could be created which would include pictures of each step of the process of making a bowl of cereal. Written descriptions of each step can also be provided for each image in the picture book.

Use a video model

Children with autism are often visual learners. If you can find a video of someone making a particular food or if you can make a video yourself, you could have your child watch the video before making the food and then even offer it as a support while they are making the food. Being able to see how a task is completed as opposed to reading or seeing a 2D image of the step can be extremely helpful for children with autism.

Provide prompts

Prompting involves helping a child complete a task. It is important to help kids be successful while also encouraging them to practice a new skill on their own. You can teach cooking skills to children with autism by using prompts. Examples of prompts that might be used to teach cooking skills include:

  • verbal prompts (explaining how to do something)
  • visual prompts (anything the child can see visually which helps them complete a step)
  • physical prompts (physically helping or guiding a child to complete a particular step in the process)
  • gestural prompts (pointing, etc. in a way that tells the child what to do)
  • positional prompts (strategic placement of items)

Consider the Child’s Sensory Experiences

Some children with autism have sensory issues that could negatively impact their experience while cooking or preparing food. It is important to consider a child’s sensory experience as it relates to food. For instance, some kids find certain smells very overwhelming or even unbearable. Some kids cannot tolerate certain textures in the foods they consume. Others would be very uncomfortable with certain textures on their hands which can make it difficult to make certain foods, particularly foods that require touching something they are uncomfortable touching. This could be anything. Some kids might not want to touch dough (like cookie dough or flour-based doughs), for example.

The key takeaway from this is that you should consider your child’s sensory experience when approaching cooking skills. Sometimes, it’s helpful to compassionately teach children to overcome the things they find aversive while other times it’s important to be accommodating toward these types of things and simply find other ways to encourage the child to develop cooking and food preparation skills to support their quality of life and independence.

Fine Motor Skills

Some children with autism have fine motor skill challenges. Fine motor skills are the skills that are involved in making small motor movements with our hands and fingers. There are a lot of fine motor skills required when it comes to cooking or preparing food. Some of the fine motor skills that could be challenging for some kids with autism include using silverware, spreading something with a butter knife (like cream cheese or peanut butter), or using the correct amount of pressure when cutting fruit or a loaf of homemade bread. Older children who can work on using a vegetable peeler might struggle with using this cooking tool.

To help kids develop their fine motor skills, offer your child activities that require them to use their hands and fingers (even outside of cooking-related activities). You can also strategically select cooking utensils and tools that support people with fine motor skill difficulties. You can also work up to more difficult tasks. For example, start with working on making a meat and cheese sandwich so the child can place each item (which has already been sliced) together to create the sandwich. Later, they can learn to spread a condiment on the sandwich or to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich which requires more fine motor skills than simply placing one item on top of another.

Cooking Skills for Kids with Autism

Kids with autism have the potential to learn more independence with cooking and preparing food. When teaching cooking skills, consider your child’s abilities and preferences, fine motor skills, and sensory experiences. Some of the teaching strategies you can use include providing recipes or visual supports, using a video model, and providing prompts.

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