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Coach Jenna Markopoulos, left, is shown with Nate Pibus in the Cooking With Autism kitchen.

Coaching in the kitchen

Cooking With Autism students celebrate 10 years of success

By Debra Downey, Senior Editor

The impact of a small cooking school that began a decade ago in Dundas has stretched around the globe.

Cooking classes designed for teens and adults with autism recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. Classes take place in the Valley Town, but students travel from as far away as Milton and Oakville to attend the Friday evening Cooking With Autism sessions. The concepts employed in the Dundas kitchen have also travelled around the world through the group’s cookbook, Coach in the Kitchen.

“News of our cooking school has spread fast,” said Penny Gill, president and founder of Cooking With Autism. “Because we operate on a modest scale that aims to teach small numbers of students well, rather than many students thinly, we don’t have enough space for everyone who’d like to come to our school.”

To meet the high demand for classes, a cookbook of specially designed recipes was created to help people around the world learn to cook, whether they have autism or other challenging conditions. The one-of-a-kind cookbook features 290 pages of tiny, sequential steps that move slowly but steadily through recipes.

For example, said Gill, recipes in typical cookbooks assume a person has a rudimentary knowledge of cooking.

“Implicit in the recipes are a multitude of things you have to do without being told,” said Gill. “Because Cooking With Autism students tend to be very literal thinkers, they do only what they are instructed to do. Nothing more.”

For example, if a recipe simply states to add a cup of thinly sliced carrots, Cooking With Autism students wouldn’t necessarily think to remove leaves, wash or peel carrots before slicing. Included in Coach in the Kitchen are instructions on how to wash carrots and a description of what is meant by “thinly slice.” Instructions are suitable for a wide range of learning styles, and everything is set out in small steps and simple language. Nothing is left to guesswork.
Healthy eating habits are encouraged through the use of fresh ingredients and nutrition fact boxes that show nutrients in each serving.

Gill said Cooking With Autism students have risen to the challenges of the kitchen. Some are now preparing meals at home, while others have marketed their cooking skills and have been hired in restaurants.

“Our methods work; our students are the proof,” said Gill. “Their cooking skills are superior to most. They are preparing meals on the upper end of good home cooking.”

Gill said the one-to-one ratio of teacher to student is critical to the program’s success because it allows students’ fine and gross motor deficits to be addressed.

“When those deficits interfere with performing part of a recipe, applying hand-on-hand support is usually the most effective teaching strategy,” said Gill. “With this kind of support, our students gradually overcome their motor challenges, and this is wonderful to witness.”

Teachers, or coaches as they are called in Cooking With Autism classes, all have prior experience working with autistic individuals. Additional training specific to the cooking program is provided, along with the opportunity to attend courses at the Geneva Centre in Toronto, a top-notch educator in all aspects of autism.

Each Friday, after the two-hour classes are complete, the evening culminates in a shared meal, where students and coaches sit together to enjoy the fruits of their labour and foster social and communication skills.

“It is no exaggeration to say that our students learn to cook far better than members of the general population,” said Gill. “They prepare meals that are on the high-end of home cooking, and they can display this skill wherever they reside—whether in the family home or in an assisted-living arrangement.”

Gill, in fact, has spent the last year and a half travelling across Canada to teach Cooking With Autism techniques to others. As well, the program was highlighted by the autism unit at the Toronto Hospital for Sick Kids when officials visited Hong Kong a few years ago.

For more information on Cooking With Autism or the cookbook, Coach in the Kitchen, visit www.cookingwithautism.com.

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