‘If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea’ Antoine de Saint-Exupery (author of The Little Prince).
There are often a lot of sensory issues that come with a diagnosis of autism. Here on Juniper Hill, we have sensitivities to loud noises, sensitivities to the texture of food, sensitivities to voice pitch, sensitivities to materials from which clothes are made. Sensitivities to certain words…WAIT, MAYBE, I DON’T KNOW….. to car engines revving, to water touching skin, to meat with bones, to high pitched voices and to total silence. To bright lights, to strong smells, to other people’s dirty dishes. Oregano. Salt. Pepper. ONIONS! The size of the pieces of food matters, and how soft, how crunchy, how sweet, how tart. How hot. How cold.
When the guys first moved in, they didn’t care if we ate meals together, and they didn’t care to experiment with unfamiliar foods. They just wanted to eat what was safe and get it over with. The support people did most of the cooking while the guys pitched in when they could stand it. Mealtimes involved a well-balanced array of foods that sat on the table while the guys made their ramen, opened their cold cans of spaghetti-os, and poured frosted flakes. As the NT (neurotypical) housemate, I held in my ‘Jewish mother’ type tendencies and didn’t force the issue. Well, maybe just a little bit! ‘Here, you like pasta, this is the same as those spaghetti-o’s, why don’t you try it?’ ‘Here, this chicken has no bones, no spices, no sauce… sure, go ahead and put ranch dressing on it, that’s fine.’
And then, 10 minutes after dinner the guys would come back into the kitchen and make popcorn. Then again an hour later.
As time went on, mealtimes became more popular. It was the time to get-together and talk about the day and share stories. We started making fancy-but -not-scary desserts. There was so little junk food in the house anymore, because the bulk of the food money went towards meals and some healthier snacks, and the leftover spending money that the guys kept was now spent on other things. Given their choice, it evolved from a giant bottle of blue soda and Doritos to a new HALO figure, Starbucks, or a music CD. The spaghetti-o’s and ramen were still included in the weekly shopping, but often they were eaten in the first two days. Without the constant supply of Doritos, the guys were hungrier and more open to eating what was cooked already.
Then…. we got a weekly meal schedule, the guys made the request. Brent had been cooking on his own for years, and he started independently making meals for everyone. It all started with ‘Pierogie casserole’. He read a recipe for it off of the Pierogie package, and the guys went wild for it. Pierogies, tomato sauce, pepperoni and mozzarella cheese….. devoured in minutes. Brent got lots of attention for his creation, and all of a sudden the guys wanted to make a meal to share too.
Everyone signed up for a day of the week. The support people jumped right in and started researching recipes off the internet. Lots of cheese, lots of pasta. Variations of rice or pasta, chicken breast, cheese, cans of cream of mushroom or celery soup… and maybe (hopefully!) a vegetable. There was salad available every night, and with Ranch dressing, it began to taste OK. A few times, we would make brave attempts to eat Ray’s concoctions that involved something scary from the ocean (eel, squid, mussels). But eventually, Ray settled into shrimp dishes to satisfy his seafood cravings, and that was fine with everyone.
These days, the monthly menu looks creative and tasty. Jose contributes food with a Mexican flair, and believe it or not everyone has come to appreciate beans and salsa. Tortillas are now a staple in the house. Pat is the casserole king, and this week he made chicken pot pie from scratch. He and Jay-R came up with the idea of using frozen biscuits as the top cover and pizza dough for the bottom… it was amazing. Everyone now knows how to make homemade pizza, and on Saturday nights they are in the kitchen together, rolling out pizza dough (bought from the grocery store, a ball of dough ready to roll) without any support people.
Now the guys all know to cut onions REALLY TINY so they disappear when cooked… they know to always have a boneless chicken breast for Ray if they are baking chicken, Jose knows to make half the beans refried and half left whole, because some can’t have the pieces of their food blended. All cut meat has to be approximately an inch square…not too big, not too small. No ground beef. Potatoes can’t be mashed, so they too, get cut in one inch squares. No pepper, no oregano during cooking, but the center of the dinner table is full of condiments so that each person’s food has the precise amount added to suit him. It wasn’t really a big deal to consider food sensitivities while cooking… and now it is second nature to make the meat the perfect size. And sometimes… the guys will still go for the ramen during dinner. But they always sit down together, everyone always compliments the cook, and they are so impressed with themselves that they are pretty sure they’re ready to publish their own cookbook….
and the Ranch dressing? Still there at center stage, helping broccoli and other questionables make it into the main course.
So thank you, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince. Thank you for your suggestion that the love of something is what inspires learning. Not only are these guys developing a love of real food, but they love creating a meal, they love the ceremony of a meal, and they love making their friends happy….
Now we just need a way to inspire them to do the dishes……