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Cooking With Asperger's
Food Strategies For Autism Spectrum Disorders
For most people, cooking is an everyday task -- enjoyable at best, tedious at worst. For people with Asperger's syndrome, PDD-NOS and other autism spectrum disorders, it can be fraught with horrors. Slimy textures, weird smells, high temperatures, clanging noises -- a busy kitchen can be a nightmare if you're on the spectrum. Just cooking your own meals becomes too intimidating to handle.
Fortunately, there are ways to make it easier. Here you'll find a few foolproof recipes for Asperger cooks, plus tips on cooking and planning strategies, and some useful tools to have around the kitchen.
What This Page Is Not
Before going further, I'd like to clarify two things:
This is not a diet page. It is not focused on low-fat, low-carb, or low anything else foods. It's a guide for autistic and Aspie people who have trouble feeding themselves without resorting to fast food or frozen dinners. Look at it this way: everything suggested here is healthier than McDonald's.
This is not about "treating autism". Some people believe that certain foods can "cure" or mitigate autism spectrum disorders. I'm more interested in learning to manage my disorder and becoming more independent.
So if you're looking for information on either of those subjects, you should look elsewhere. If, however, you want advice for autistic people learning to cook homemade meals, keep reading.
(This is also not about how to cook asparagus. It pays to check your spelling!)
Dealing With Asperger's In The Kitchen
Probably the two biggest problems for people with AS when trying to cook are sensory issues and processing issues.
Many people with autism spectrum disorders are hypersensitive to sensory input -- ordinary noises sound deafening, smells are overwhelming, and unfamiliar textures make us sick. There are a number of ways to cope with this, from using tools that cut down on contact with icky foods to ensuring a quiet environment while cooking.
The other problem has to do with the way Aspies process information. Again, there are strategies to deal with this, such as having clear, precise instructions, and minimizing the number of things we have to do at one time.
I'll start with a few useful tools that mostly help with the sensory side.
The Aspie's Kitchen Tools
My #1 lifesaver in the kitchen. These babies make handling slimy things like meat and eggs much, much easier.
Reaching into a hot oven can feel intimidating to Aspies. With this nifty tool, you won't have to.
Another great strategy for maneuvering raw meat, these tongs won't slip, even if your concentration does.
My brother's #1 tool is a good sharp knife -- "no matter how gross the thing you're trying to cut is, it will all be over soon!"
And, of course, you have to make sure your sharp knife STAYS sharp. This knife sharpener is simple to use and gets good reviews.
Wear shoes while cooking to avoid spilling things on your bare feet, or stepping in puddles.
Aspergers Recipe: Plain White Rice
White rice is about the most inoffensive food in existence. It goes well with all kinds of things. Rice with gravy is my go-to comfort food, and plain rice is easy on an upset stomach.
- Measure out 1/3 of a cup of rice per person (or half a cup if you really like rice), and twice as much water.
- Put a pat of butter into a pot with a lid. Set the open pot on the stove over low heat, and wait for the butter to melt.
- Pour the rice and the water into the pot. Turn the heat up.
- When the water is boiling (i.e. bubbling a lot), sprinkle about half a teaspoon of salt into the pot, and cover it with the lid. Turn the heat down low again, and set a timer for 20 minutes.
- When the timer goes off, lift the lid -- be careful of any steam. Your rice should be cooked, and all the water should be gone. If not, let it cook for a few more minutes and check again.
More Kitchen Aids For Aspies
Having to "guess" whether things are done sends my anxiety through the roof. With a meat thermometer -- especially one with labels for different foods -- that isn't a problem.
You can use the timer on your stove or microwave, but a portable timer has the advantage that you can go do other things while you wait for your dinner to cook.
More gloves -- these will protect you not only from slimy things, but also from your knives.
Write down your recipes on regular 4 x 6 index cards.
Then stash your recipe cards in a handy binder, instead of having to rummage in a box.
Have a quick snack before you cook. Being hungry makes sensory issues worse.
Aspergers Recipe: Baked Potato
Baked potatoes are versatile, nutritious, and super easy to cook. All you really need is an oven and a fork -- and, if you're sensory defensive, some gloves and an oven rack puller. As a bonus, they stay warm for quite a while once cooked.
- Preheat the oven to about 400 degrees.
- Wash the potatoes. Don't get too hung up on this step. A quick scrub under running water will get rid of the dust. If you can't stand getting your hands wet, wear your trusty gloves.
- Use a paring knife to get rid of any rootlets or greenish patches on your potatoes.
- Put the potatoes in the oven, right on the rack. Set a timer for an hour (60 minutes).
- When the timer goes off, check your potatoes by sticking a fork through the skin; if they feel soft inside, they're done. Use the fork or an oven mitt to take them out of the oven. You're done!
Aspergers Recipe: English Muffin Pizzas
A flexible lunch or light dinner. These are a little more complicated to make, but not too hard if you have all the materials.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Split English muffins in half. You'll need 2-4 halves (1-2 muffins) per person. Most English muffins come already split... sort of. Slide a fork or table knife into the slit and carefully pull apart. It's okay if the halves aren't even.
- Arrange the muffins on a baking sheet.
- If desired, add a spoonful or two of pizza sauce to each muffin. (I usually skip this, as I'm not a huge fan of tomato sauce.)
- Add cheese -- I use grated cheddar, enough to cover the top of the muffin; use mozzarella or even American if you prefer.
- Add toppings. You can use pre-cooked bacon or sausage, sliced mushrooms or olives, bits of bell pepper, M&Ms (maybe not) -- anything that will be okay to eat after it's been in the oven for 15 minutes.
- Put the baking sheet in the oven and set a timer for 15 minutes. (You probably saw that coming.) If the cheese is completely melted, you're good to go.
Remember to use both hands when necessary! Wear oven mitts to handle hot pots and pans.
Aspergers Recipe: Roast Pork
This is my personal standby -- I do love pork! Baked potatoes go well with it, and to round out the meal with some vitamins, you can add apple slices or green beans (frozen or raw, according to your taste). I also follow the same basic procedure with bone-in chicken breasts, which usually cook a little bit faster.
- Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
- Put a defrosted boneless pork roast into a roasting pan or iron skillet. Food-safe nitrile gloves will make this task considerably less disgusting.
- Sprinkle flour over the meat. (This will make it crisper on the outside; if you're on a gluten-free diet, you can just skip this step.)
- Season to taste. I usually use salt, pepper, and some dried rosemary. The juice of half a lemon and a little powdered ginger also works well.
- Put the pan into the preheated oven. Set a timer for one hour (60 minutes).
- When the timer goes off, stick a meat thermometer into the middle of the roast to see if it's done -- between 145 and 170 degrees. If not, put it back in and check again in 15 minutes.
A Note On Vegetables
There are so many kinds of vegetables, and so many different kinds of food issues, that it's hard to recommend anything specific. Personally, I prefer raw veggies (and only a few kinds); other people can only stand them cooked.
If you're one of the latter, How Stuff Works has an exhaustive list of simple instructions for cooking vegetables.
If you're like me, don't worry -- raw vegetables are just as good if not better for you, and usually easy to prepare. Wash them off, cut off the inedible parts, and peel if necessary. Bam, vitamins.
(If you simply can't cope with veggies at all, try substituting fruits and nuts. The world of edible plants is wide enough that there's bound to be something you can eat.)
Dos and Don'ts for Autistic Cooks
- Do plan ahead. Make sure you have everything you need before you start -- all the food, seasonings, cookware, utensils, and so forth. Changing plans on the fly is stressful, so protect yourself against needless blood pressure spikes by preparing.
- Don't panic. Most cooking mistakes are recoverable. If a pot boils over, turn off the heat and worry about the mess later. If you can't find a potholder, use a folded dish towel (see, it really does pay to have a towel handy). If you forgot to add the salt, add it now!
- Do take ownership of the kitchen. Before you start, ask the other members of the household to give you space while you cook, and not come into the kitchen until you tell them to. Cooking is hard for you, so you need to be able to concentrate.
- Don't be afraid to ask for help. If you do get hung up on something, it's good to have an understanding friend or family member available to bail you out, or at least talk you down. When you've done as much as you can by yourself, there's nothing wrong with asking for a hand.
- Don't push yourself too hard. If raw meat and eggs freak you out, try some vegetarian recipes first, and combine them with nuts or frozen chicken tenders to provide some protein while you work up your confidence. If you like spaghetti but can't deal with tomatoes, use a canned tomato puree or try alternative toppings. Take it slow.
- Do write things down. If you're like me and my brother, you have a need to get things exactly right. Get yourself a pack of recipe cards (or just plain index cards) and copy down step-by-step instructions for anything you're not sure of, even if it seems simple. Ask family and friends to dictate their recipes to you, and don't be afraid to ask for clarification.
- Don't beat yourself up. If your first attempt is a total disaster, just throw it out, order a pizza, and try again later. Take note of the mistakes you make and think of solutions or ways to plan better. Likewise, if you can't bring yourself to cook at all one day, don't give up forever. Give yourself permission to be "lazy" this time.
- Do persevere. Just because you didn't manage dinner tonight doesn't mean you can't make breakfast tomorrow, so give yourself a breather and then get back in the saddle.
Now that I've covered the basic strategies and given you a few recipes to start with, you may want to check out these additional resources.
- Cooking With Autism
A resource and cookbook from the AFA's cooking school, containing a bunch of more complicated recipes.