No knives or sharp objects of any kind, and the oven is off limits. Those are the rules in the Warner household for their 10-year-old son, Dylan.
Rebecca Warner, Dylan’s mom, once caught him sticking a knife inside the toaster while it was on. He was trying to retrieve a slice of toast. Fortunately, he wasn’t hurt.
Another mom found her 7-year-old son putting a metal bowl in the microwave. “On another occasion, he forgot to remove the plastic fork from the toaster oven,” she said. “I caught it before it melted.”
Both children have autism. They’re allowed in the kitchen when their parents are present, which is a common practice for many families with high-functioning autistic children. Kitchen rules are about safety and protecting your child. One parent has a padlock on the knife drawer in her kitchen. “My son can be aggressive,” she explained. “So we have a strict-knives-are-for-grownups-only policy with him.”
But learning to use knives and kitchen appliances is part of learning how to cook, which is an essential aspect of raising independent children. So how can we teach our children with autism these essential skills? And more importantly, is it worth it?
Cooking can make fussy eaters less fussy.
A study from Penn State College of Medicine found atypical eating behaviors were present in 70% of children with autism, which is 15 times more common than in neurotypical children. It’s not just the taste or look of unfamiliar foods. It can be a sensory issue, which makes trying and handling new foods difficult. Kids on the autism spectrum tend to have one or two favorites that they eat every day. When my 19-year-old son was younger, he only ate buttered noodles—a favorite of many kids with autism. In the popular Netflix series’ Atypical, Sam (the central character who has autism) goes to Olive Garden with his friend and tells her that she can order buttered noodles even though it’s not on the menu.
Getting your fussy eater to try new foods can be challenging, but it’s not impossible. One way to do it is to encourage your fussy eater to make their own food.
“Learning to cook empowers children and strengthens the bond between parent and child,” Suzannah McFerran, executive food editor at America’s Test Kitchen Kids, said. “And children who cook are more willing to taste foods that they prepare.”
“When you teach a child to cook, everyone eats better and [is] more open to trying new foods,” said Peggy Policastro, PhD, RDN, and director of the New Jersey Healthy Kids Initiative at Rutgers University. She works with neurotypical and autistic children.
“Cooking is a valuable life skill,” she said. “It teaches children about nutrition, food safety, literacy, and even math. It helps improve one’s fine-motor skills, which is a plus for kids with autism and other special needs. Plus parents get to spend time with their children.”
With cooking, children of all ages can participate.
Policastro suggests starting with a simple salad. “Children as young as three, can tear up lettuce for a salad,” she said. “You know your child and his or her skill and maturity level.”
Once you master that, find another recipe to try.
“Pick a recipe with five ingredients," Policastro said. "It could be a brownie recipe from a box. Have your child read and gather the [ingredients]. Show your child how to set the oven and the timer. If your children are afraid of opening a hot oven and placing the prepared mix into it, it’s okay to do it for them.”
McFerran agreed. “Teach them age-appropriate kitchen skills,” she said. “Young children can stir ingredients together, learn how to crack an egg, read a recipe, and gather all of the ingredients.”
Focus on achievable tasks.
You know your child and what they can handle. Even though it sometimes seems like they need a lot of help or supervision, try to take a step back and focus on what they can do. Most children can do the following simple tasks:
- Be part of the meal-planning process
- Look for recipes
- Set the table
- Read a recipe
- Take out all of the items needed for cooking
- Oil a baking sheet and place vegetables on it for roasting
- Tear up leafy greens with their hands
- Cut foods with a knife or safety knife
“Once parents let their children try, they’re often amazed at what [their children] can do,” Policastro said. “So, what if a bit of eggshell drops into the mix? It’s not a big deal. Your children are learning a valuable skill and are gaining confidence.”
That’s true for Noelle Moore. “I was totally against it,” she said. Her son took a class at his school. He’s six and high functioning. He came home and wanted to show her what he'd made. It was a simple pasta salad with small elbow macaroni. The teacher boiled the water and helped the students put the pasta into the pot. The kids cut up celery, measured the amount of salt and pepper, and stirred a measured amount of mayonnaise into the drained pasta pot. His teacher also had precut red onion, small containers of mustard, and chopped hard-boiled eggs to mix in.
"My son tried the egg but left out the mustard," she said. "At least he tried it.”
You can help set up your kids for success.
You don't have to do things for your kids, but setting them up on the right path is a good thing. Special needs kids need independence, too. Getting the essential tools and learning to handle them properly will put everyone at ease. Several online retailers sell kid-safe knives, peelers, and other kitchen items. If you’re ready to let your child chop fruits and vegetables, look for a knife that’s solid, durable, and easy to hold. Many knives for kid chefs are serrated, making them less likely to slip. And a serrated knife grabs the food more easily than a straight-edged one. Still, you’ll want to teach your child how to properly hold a knife. Teach them the claw grip, which will help them keep their fingers tucked away from the knife blade, limiting the chance for injury.
Children with autism who cook with their parents, siblings, friends, or in a cooking class learn valuable social skills. “Food is about sharing,” Policastro said. “In a class it can be about cooperation and turn taking. Someone does one chore, and another does something else. They wind up working together and socializing, which is essential for children with autism.”