Food plays a vital role in human life: it provides nutrients for growth and good health. For many people, mealtime is something to look forward to, however, for individuals with autism and their families, it can become a source of major stress. Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often demonstrate repetitive behaviors and selective interests, which can in turn affect what they choose to eat.
“Up to 70 percent of parents with children on the autism spectrum report problems with excessively narrow eating habits,” says Emily Kuschner, a clinical psychologist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. These tendencies often continue into adulthood, and can affect their ability to become self-sufficient.
SNACK*’s Cooking and Food Prep programs can help adapt and teach individuals with special needs skills that will allow them to have healthy, independent and successful lives in the future.
“For my husband and me, like most people, food is something that's fun and exciting,” explains Shelly Gaudrau, whose oldest son, Henry, has autism. “We love to cook and try new foods and eat a wide variety of things. But for my son, Henry, food causes anxiety. So eating and cooking for him is about finding ways to reduce that anxiety so he can get the food he needs for fuel.”
Studies show that children with ASD are five times more likely to have mealtime challenges such as tantrums and ritualistic eating behaviors, and exhibit more food refusal than neurotypical children. Children may refuse to eat because of changes in their routine such as sitting in a different place at the table, eating on a different dish or simply having foods then they’re used to.
Melissa Olive, a psychologist who treats feeding disorders in children ASD, says that children with autism may fear new foods and develop inappropriate behaviors to avoid them. Parents often give-in to get their children to eat, which can cause mild feeding problems to become more severe in the long run.
Sensory intolerance with some tastes, smells, colors and textures of foods can also cause feeding issues. Individuals with autism may limit or totally avoid some foods or whole food groups based on how they affect their senses. For example, research shows that many individuals with autism reject fruits and vegetables and instead prefer carbohydrates and processed foods.
Individuals can also shape preferences around motor skills. According to Peter Girolami, clinical director of Pediatric Feeding Disorders at Kennedy Krieger, a child with motor deficits may have trouble chewing and swallowing, which leads them to develop a preference for smooth foods.
Additionally, individuals with autism may have difficulty focusing on one task for an extended period of time, meaning it can be hard for them to sit down and eat a meal from start to finish.
Research also shows that there is a “strong relationship” between eating problems and gastrointestinal dysfunction in children with autism. Individuals with ASD avoid certain foods because they aggravate gastrointestinal (GI) problems such as reflux and abdominal pain, and may have outbursts because of the discomfort they feel when eating.
The sources of food aversions can be difficult to identify. Many individuals with autism have difficulty describing what they dislike about certain foods, especially when distressed.
All of these factors make inadequate nutrition more prevalent among individuals diagnosed with autism in comparison to those without it, and can lead to health issues, mental disorders and behavioral problems. This is why it’s important to screen for underlying medical conditions that could be driving an individual’s dislike of particular foods, and to consult a dietician to check for deficiencies.
Though it is not a cure-all, cooking can have a positive impact on the lives of individuals on the spectrum. Learning to cook is fun, and can teach individuals with autism skills that will nurture their independence and give them some control over their diet.
Cooking teaches those with ASD concepts of nutrition, good hygiene, and portioning, as well as how to properly use kitchen equipment. Learning how to cook can even prepare some for a career within the food industry.
Using recipes when cooking provides the opportunity to work on reading comprehension, listening skills, sequencing skills and mathematics when measuring.
Many individuals with autism also have difficulty with fine motor skills, which the movements of cooking- such as mixing, pouring, cutting and using utensils- may help hone.
Deborah French, whose son Henry has ASD, explains that at the age of four, Henry had poor gross and fine motor skills. However, when the pair decided to bake cookies one day, Henry's movements were controlled and attentive. “I realised that in the kitchen Henry's concentration and fine motor skills were excellent,” says French.
French attributes Henry’s success to the “relaxed and fun environment” cooking provides. She believes this makes it easier to tackle learning difficulties because children don't realise they're learning, and therefore develop the fastest. Children may also be more willing to try a new meal if they had a hand in the preparation.
Furthermore, cooking builds confidence by giving individuals with autism a sense of accomplishment by being able to contribute to a meal. Time spent cooking with others can even improve communication and social skills, or forge family connections.
SNACK* understands that cooking and eating healthy food is important, which is why it offers teen and 21+ cooking programs designed to increase and maintain everyday living skills.
The Teen Cooking class focuses on nutrition, proper use of utensils, recipe following, table manners, hygiene, and presents the opportunity to try new things, while honoring special diets.
SNACK*’S 21+ Food Prep class includes the same curriculum, but also teaches members to set the table, collect dirty plates, and load the dishwasher after they are finished eating.
Lastly, the 21+ Cooking class seeks to teach members about all parts of the cooking process, including meal planning, shopping, and kitchen safety so they will be able to utilize these skills independently. During this class, members experience cooking different recipes and understanding their list of ingredients. Following step by step, they are able to prepare and enjoy the result! Including clean up!