As a speech-language pathologist specializing in pediatric feeding treatment, I work mostly with kids, food and creating happier mealtimes for families. I often find the kitchen is the heart of the home, where parents are most relaxed and where we can build relationships with kids with autism, especially if they are hesitant eaters.
To help SLPs and parents embark on their food adventure, I offer five tips to make the kitchen connection for kids with autism:
- Many kids with autism tend to focus on details and visual cues. Use picture or photo boards, cue cards with clear, concise directions, and visual symbols to support them. Steps for recipes, loading dishes in the dishwasher or simply finding equipment in the kitchen can all be broken down into a sequence of steps using visual support.
- Rules are comforting. Children with autism need sameness to build familiarity or comfort in learning new skills. Teach kitchen rules to help make their environment predictable. For example, before we cook, we always wash our hands and put on our aprons. This little ritual sets the stage for next steps, no matter what we prepare or cook on that day.
- Use social stories outside the kitchen. Create your own books about what will happen in the kitchen or read books together about the foods that will be part of the next cooking session. Favorite books for young food explorers include Broc and Cara’s Picnic Party and I Will Never Ever Eat a Tomato.
- Tie the child’s top interest into cooking and food crafts. For younger chefs who love shapes, animals, Legos, trains or construction, I use the book Making Mealtime ezpz to construct food art with animal, travel and construction themes. Try fun tools to engage kids, like FunBites food cutters and Kuhn Rikon Doggie Knives for cutting out the pieces to form boxcars, train tracks, animal faces and more!
- Take it slow. Read everyone’s cues (including other family members) and don’t push too hard for the next step in treatment. End on a positive note, so families can begin the next session building on skills and experiences in the kitchen.