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5 things autistic people should know about cooking

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The Autism-Friendly Cookbook by journalist Lydia Wilkins compiles 100 recipes created for for autistic adults and teens to turn to when cooking for friends, lacking inspiration, or on low-energy or meltdown days.

The recipes also offer adaptations for people who are sensory seekers, sensory avoiders or who want to broaden their cooking horizons in the kitchen. The book has four core chapters and suits a range of dietary needs including vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and dairy-free.

Below, you can read an extract and a recipe from the The Autism-Friendly Cookbook, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers on Nov. 21.

Five golden rules for autistic people in the kitchen

These five rules should make up the common ground of what any autistic individual needs to remember while using The Autism-Friendly Cookbook and cooking, baking, or working with food.

1. Knowing how to help yourself can be helpful

From the point of diagnosis, there seems to be this odd idea about how to deal with acknowledging that someone is on the autistic spectrum. I know of parents who have hidden their autistic child’s diagnosis, only for the child to later find out as an adult, having spent years wondering why they were different, unable to articulate or understand why. This seems to so often be dismissed as “typical teenage angst” – whatever that means – when there is an actual underlying reason. Anecdotally, there are stories where the child – now a “grown-up” – would later argue that difficulties they struggled with in the present went back to having spent so much time spent struggling, having lived under a cloud of “not knowing” and feeling out of place.

The justification that often came up? “I don’t want my child to experience stigma.” But that is allowing a struggle to go on and is arguably worse than a stigma that is in need of challenging in the first place. Knowing yourself, your strengths and challenges you face has a huge range of benefits. “Stigma” is more of a “what if” concept – “what if I experience this?” – a hypothetical scenario.

Many autistic people spoke or wrote to me about how they did not learn how to cook or prepare food because lessons were not accessible.

While I understand why some may suggest they want to shield others from stigma, you cannot live life in a perpetual state of “what if”. You will never know what will happen; you may even later wonder, “What could have been if…?” It also suggests that stigma is the responsibility of the autistic individual. Understanding yourself – what you find difficult or easy, your preferred textures, your sensory profile, possible triggers for distress – can have a hugely positive impact, as we can start to help ourselves when it comes to adapting the kitchen and making food accessible. We will be delving more into this in the next chapter, by way of “lifting the lid” on all things sensory. It can be difficult, and there is never just a stage of “I have learned everything”. We are all works in progress, after all.

2. There is no shame in the ‘not knowing’ of something

My job [as a journalist] relies on asking questions, which is not just in the context of an interview. Information is what empowers all of us and is what we all effectively run on; we give and receive information on a day-by-day basis. We tweet it, blog it, Facebook it, WhatsApp it, exchange it in conversation; it is the very basis of what constitutes a society of people. It is the very fabric that binds us all together as a species.

There is a huge gap in food education when it comes to autistic individuals, but research has yet to quantify this. At the time of writing, there is no data to officially provide context, but it is blindingly obvious from anecdotes, interviews, or just friendly conversations with autistic people. Many autistic people spoke or wrote to me about how they did not learn how to cook or prepare food because lessons were not accessible – or that they had not learned because they were perceived as not needing to know how to prepare food, on the basis of their condition.

Another common theme was bullying and discrimination, very often connected to the state of not knowing. Some also had another condition that meant an extra layer of support was needed, which can happen when someone is on the autistic spectrum, but with infantilization added to the mix. All played a part in making the kitchen a place where many were extremely uncomfortable and/or anxious/apprehensive at times. There is no shame in the not knowing – we are all entitled, by the basic right of being a human being, to information. Information empowers us, and it is how we learn. Inaccessibility, discrimination and bullying have no place in the twenty-first century.

3. Cook for yourself – and not for the approval of anyone else

We are all familiar with those moments where something is just bound to go wrong, when we end up asking, “Why me?” I have had many of those while baking and cooking, preparing the most basic of meals. For example, during one of the COVID-19 lockdowns, virtually everyone in the UK tried baking banana bread. Mine leaked out of the improvised cake tin, as the bottom was not screwed properly into place. Not bad for a first attempt, perhaps, but it did go badly wrong and was a lot smaller than it should have been and more shrivelled as a result.

Before the pandemic, at the suggestion of a lecturer, I baked a weekly cake for a particular class while attending college. It was a way to make friends, apparently – my social skills are not the best, after all – but I would argue people just talked to me because of the prospect of free cake. I was baking every week for approval, which became something quite stressful. (I also remained relatively lonely, more likely to turn to books as a result.)

Each and every single cake would have a satirical, tongue-in-cheek theme. It was the year Donald Trump was elected, and some of us felt really sad – we got through it on the basis of puns. Cake can do a lot for misery, sometimes. Just something to bear in mind. The more I cooked or baked for approval, the more I found that something was liable to go wrong. This is just one example of that manifesting itself. Or, failing that, I could always see the faults and the flaws of what I had (imperfectly) produced. My nature can be a little too perfectionist, thanks to often trying to compensate for my executive functioning challenges. So, learn from my mistake: cook for yourself, and only yourself. The moment I did this, my self-confidence began to approve massively. And if someone criticizes that delicious, chocolate sponge cake you tried to create, because you turned it into something that looked a little like a monster to cover up some not very noticeable flaws, they can always go without a slice.

4. To be accessible, we are going to have to let go of the neurotypical standards most kitchens go by

It is something that should not have to be said, let alone written in a book. We should not have to wear lanyards just to ensure basic standards, or even phone ahead to get access to venues. We should not have to lobby constantly for a basic “levelling up” of standards we are eligible for, just to reach the same standards set for a very niche demographic society holds up as “normal”. We should not have to prove that we are autistic enough when applying for Personal Independence Payment, a specific benefit in the UK, to try to avoid a tribunal yet still be set up to fail. Can I let you into a secret? Come closer…closer. Whispers Accessibility matters – and to make the kitchen accessible, we are going to have to rewrite neurotypical standards of what it means to be accessible. It also will have a positive impact for everyone, and is not just ‘preferential treatment’, a phrase that seems to crop up in justifications to not provide basic accessible arrangements, when legally they should already be in place.

To make the kitchen accessible, we are going to have to rewrite neurotypical standards of what it means to be accessible.

It took me so many years to realize that I judged myself too harshly by marking myself against neurotypical standards, such as when it came to productivity, fitness, or any other ability. The feeling of “I am not good enough but what is it that is wrong with me?” was – and still is – immense at times. The same can said for my hit and miss style of working – well, trying to work – in the kitchen. This is a story that I see so very often when it comes to other autistic folk, too. The frustration was almost palpable; it was the taste of metal in your mouth, the feel of a balled-up fist just before a meltdown, the lack of follow-through. We will keep rules that define things such as safety, as well as keeping standards of food care in place, too. But we will not keep the standard of ‘everything having to be perfect’ – from the presentation of a recipe to the food combinations. Mistakes happen. And people sometimes have tastes that may seem outlandish to some of us – such as peanut butter on sliced apple. (That’s my sibling who likes that. Now, that is something we will never see eye to eye on. Yuck.) Cook for yourself and try to learn to let go of impossible standards. You will feel so much better for it, trust me.

5. We are but a tapestry in progress

The world would be a very boring place if we were all the same, with no difference, no creativity, no originality. It is the in-between where what makes us human begins and ends. We all have our faults and flaws, our better sides and more positive days. It may be frustrating at times to acquire new skills over time, but there is something beautiful in that. Be kind to yourself.

Conventional autumn fruit crumble

Serves four to six people
Duration: 45 minutes to 1 hour
Energy rating: Low

Skill level: Easy

To make when: you need to entertain family relatives – such as if they have driven a long way to see you to stay over for the weekend; your housemates have all decided to stay in for the evening and you need a pudding of some sort.

Crumble is a smell I strongly associate with my childhood. This recipe has a hands-on element, so sensory avoiders may wish to use disposable gloves.

Equipment you’ll need

1 butter knife
1 mixing bowl
1 set of digital scales
1 ceramic baking dish
1 piece of kitchen roll paper
1 tablespoon
1 silicone or wooden spoon

Ingredients

250 grams (9 ounces) of butter plus a little extra to grease your ceramic baking dish
4 tablespoons of plain flour/all-purpose flour
1 bag of frozen blackberries and raspberries
2 pinches of brown sugar

How to make

Pre-preparation: Take the butter out of your fridge and allow to come to room temperature; this will make it easier to work with in the long run. Chop up into rough small chunks and put it all in the mixing bowl; measure out the flour and also add to the mixing bowl. Grease your baking ceramic dish with a little butter on the kitchen paper. Put the fruit into it.

Method

1. Set your oven to 180°C/350°F and allow to heat up.

2. Rub together the flour and the butter together to get a crumb like mixture; this can take up to 10 minutes and will be the top of your crumble. Spread it evenly on top of the fruit, covering the fruit completely.

3. Sprinkle 2 pinches of brown sugar across the top of the crumble. Bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown.

Expand your repertoire

Try sprinkling other things on top of the crumble in addition to or instead of the sugar; desiccated coconut is one thing you could try! Porridge oats could also make a healthier mix during step 2; Re-plate half of the flour with porridge oats.

The Autism-Friendly Cookbook, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers on Nov. 21, is available from bookstores now.

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