Mitra Ahani, M.S., CCC-SLP
Building Interaction and Communication Using the Sensory and Motivational Aspects of Cooking
It all started during morning circle time. I was watching my niece, then 8 years old, as the teacher showed her a visual board of songs available and asked “What do you want?” referring to what song came next. She responded with “Steak. I want steak.” It was 9:15 in the morning and much of her days were spent asking for food, thinking about food, dreaming about food. We didn’t want to use food as a reinforcer, she had that during her first years of ABA and it wasn’t the path we were currently on. As a speech pathologist and aunt to a child on the spectrum I wanted everything for her – communication, happiness, independence, development, motivation, joy, engagement, love and fun. Besides my private practice, I also offered SLP services at my niece’s school. I therefore had the opportunity to shape her educational program. The Program Director at the time came to me and said “Mitra, how about an academic program for her that is built around cooking?” Brilliant! At that time, she was in a program that was truly individualized; the occupational therapist, program director and I got together and started creating cooking activities that included all of her IEP goals. Language goals were easy to incorporate: joint attention, comments, adverbs, adjectives, colors, and shapes. Occupational Therapy goals were incorporated as well.
What I noticed first wasn’t expected. It was a change in her posture. She walked with her head held high. She didn’t stare at the floor and attempt to put everything in her mouth. Now, she would independently say “Hi” to strangers on the street and smile more than stim. She was doing something that had meaning to her. She got to be around one of the things she is the most passionate about. Food. Her language started to develop, she was becoming more reciprocal, she was referencing and using her visual recipe and she wasn’t resisting us! These were all wonderful signs for a little girl that could be very stubborn when she was supposed to do something she didn’t want to do. The cooking program grew and grew. More students were responding positively and we had found something that many of my clients were excited to participate in. In my private practice, we created social groups, 1:1 sessions, integrated groups and a video tutorial on how to implement strategies for success.
Cooking has proven to be a wonderful way to connect through an activity that kids find interesting and motivating. It is a process that provides countless opportunities for learning and positive interactions. As a speech and language pathologist and aunt of a niece on the spectrum, I know the importance of social communication, functional life skills, independence and long-term development. Cooking became an avenue that connected all of these skills. Creating interactive cooking lessons and activities that promote engagement and communication became a must for any and all of my kids that showed even the slightest interest. The natural sequence of cooking, organized environment and consistent reward in the end has proven to be a fantastic platform for individuals on all parts of the spectrum. Each step of the recipe can be modified to meet the needs of each child. It is also a great way to incorporate siblings and peers for an afternoon of fun together!
Tips For Cooking With Your ASD Son or Daughter:
Let’s Get Visual
Visuals can be critical to the cooking process. Visual recipes are sets of pictures that describe each step using photos. Visuals help the kids have a clear understanding of what is being expected, and a clear beginning and end structure to the activity. They help kids participate and predict the next steps and final outcome. Visual recipes can also reduce anxiety by providing context and a step-by-step sequence. Over time, visuals can decrease the need for constant adult prompting or involvement and increase independence. Don’t have time to take pictures of each step? Not to worry, there are visual recipe books available online.
Create an Environment That Promotes Success
It is important to have all the necessary equipment, items and supports organized and ready to go when you begin cooking. Having to leave the work area to retrieve items may cause a disruption or break the stride of a successful interaction. Once your chef-to- be has more experience and can handle some changes, retrieving items can be a wonderful way to expand and increase the complexity. I like to set up the environment so I don’t have to worry too much about making a mess (i.e.- using a table cloth that has already been stained or a cloth on the ground for easy clean up). My visual recipe is in place, a trash can is nearby, plenty of paper towels, rags etc. My rule of thumb is that anything that can spill, will spill. I’m always prepared for that and I don’t let it deter me from having fun. Instead, I use it as a moment to teach clean up.
Encourage Sensory Exploration
Cooking offers a multitude of opportunities for sensory stimulation – kneading dough, cracking eggs, pouring, mixing, smelling, and eating. These aspects of cooking can help engage and stimulate language and development. Your child will show you which parts they want to participate in and which parts may over stimulate them! Be sure to tune in to their responses to each step to know where they can become more independent. For older children working toward independence, you may want to place some limits on the extent of sensory exploration.
Adjust Your Pace to Fit the Individual’s Needs
Be sure to go at the appropriate pace for your child. Some kids may need you to whip through a recipe quickly to keep their attention others will need time to process the information. Breaks can and should be offered throughout, if needed. The idea is for them to want to participate, so if that means a few 10-minute breaks, no problem! Remember that it isn’t the product, but the process. So, enjoy, tune in and have fun!
Expect the Unexpected
I have had pizza dough on the ceiling (of my doing), entire bottles of pizza sauce spread on a small pizza, flour fights and more. I know all parents may not be willing to deal with that level of clean up, but I find it fun. I really embrace these mishaps and use them as teaching, engaging and bonding moments. Messes can equal fun, which can equal joint attention and language, expressiveness ( “Oops!”, “Uh-Oh”, “Wow!”), and problem solving. I don’t mind if they are having fun and are connected with me, even if it means the actual recipe isn’t being followed. A little extra clean up time is completely worth it, in exchange for a big smile and some novel, spontaneous language. A cooking session isn’t necessarily the time to bake your anniversary wedding cake! Flexibility within the structure is a must to get the most out of these moments.
When many of my kids started cooking, they only completed the first several steps and that is fine. Each time they may engage more and more until they are participating throughout the recipe. I strongly suggest you pick the most motivating recipe for your child and repeat it several times before moving to the next recipe. The repetition creates a predictable environment and promotes engagement and independence.
Safety and Hygiene
Make sure you are with your student or child, supervising each step of the activity. Always wash hands before starting and be sure to wash hands immediately after using any raw meats or crack eggs. Long hair should be pulled up and long sleeves rolled back. You will know what steps are safe for your child or student.
These tips will help you get started. You will soon realize what parts your kids enjoy and what parts to prepare ahead of time. Remember, the end isn’t a perfect product, it’s connecting and having fun together!
Mitra Ahani is the Founder/Director of Route 2 Language which provides quality services to children with autism and their families. She has 12 years of experience with non-verbal and verbal kids on the autism spectrum, both in private practice and in public/non-public education. She follows a developmental model that emphasizes social and functional communication. She is passionate about promoting communication using natural modalities and augmentative communication systems. She has personally experienced the challenges families face when a child is diagnosed with ASD. Her work is dedicated to meeting the needs of the children as well as their families. She is currently working towards opening a therapy and recreation center in San Jose, CA.
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