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Autism, Eating, and the Barefoot Contessa; Finding Help in Unexpected Places

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by Sara Winter
Autism Asperger’s Digest | January/February 2011

Eating, sleeping and self-care are typically huge issues for children with autism. My nephew, Leo, fought his way through years of therapy and made huge strides in all of these areas except one: his relationship to food. In spite of behavioral therapies and a host of interventions that included sensory integration and RDI, all issues related to food remained a challenge. But sometimes help comes when you least expect it, and from sources you’d never imagine, and that’s how my nephew finally made progress. Over the last few years, he has gone from having a very narrow diet, to eating a healthy variety of foods…and cooking meals too! I am incredibly proud to share his story.

My sister, Nicole, is a knockout cook. Always has been. She loves to create in the kitchen. In those early years of autism intervention, it was one of her only creative outlets. Her son Leo, has had a long history of serious sensory issues surrounding food. It has been very tough for us to watch his body reject tastes, smells and textures on its most basic level. His diet consisted of little more than strawberries, stick pretzels, green grapes, and one type of homemade pizza.

A few years ago, my sister started recording Barefoot Contessa on the Food Network, to inspire new recipes for family meals. Leo accidentally began to watch the show with interest and soon, if she let him control the remote, he would even allow her to watch it with him. I remember how he held his little hands up over his eyes to help process the information as it came barreling at him from the television screen. But the shows were visual, highly predictable, and celebrity chef Ina Garten had a soothing way and tone of voice. Watching each segment became a safe way to access the concept of eating, which up until this point had been a monstrous idea. He became interested in food. Not eating exactly…just the food.

After watching Barefoot Contessa, Leo developed an interest in her cookbooks. Building on this, my sister began to include him in meal planning. He loved making grocery lists and collecting ingredients. It wasn’t long before he progressed to participating in the cooking process. My sister started by giving him small roles, like “mixer” or “sprinkler,” developing the scaffolding that allowed skills to increase incrementally. As his confidence grew, he began to take ownership and add his own ideas about the way things should be done.

It didn’t happen quickly – it took almost a year – but handling and smelling food turned out to be the first step toward opening a whole new world to him. His body was beginning to “consume” food through its other senses. Very slowly, he was breaking through. Leo cooked beautiful dinners for his family, and although he wouldn’t eat them, he was very proud of his creations.

Gradually, Leo began to taste things here and there…a piece of something that got stuck to his finger or fell off a plate. Little-by-little he began to overcome the issues of taste and texture that interfered with eating a wider variety of foods. One of the most important keys was letting him proceed at his own pace. I give my sister a lot of credit because she never rushed him, despite desperately wanting him to try new things. She didn’t cheer, or make a big deal of it; she let Leo explore in his own time, and in his own way. Whether it was choosing a recipe, or deciding a weekly schedule of meals with his parents, he began to gain some competency and feel more in control of his eating habits.

During this new foray into the world of food, Leo started H.A.N.D.L.E. (a type of sensory integration therapy). We complemented the process by talking about how the human body processes food. This gave him logical reasons (in a tangible way) to understand why people were always telling him to “eat healthy.” He learned about the best food choices for his body by watching videos on how the body works, and learned about “go foods,” “slow foods,” and “whoa foods” from the website  www.kidshealth.org.  Now, at least two years later, Leo is starting to understand there is a connection between what he is putting into his body and the performance response he can expect. His recent interest in sports makes this connection extremely motivating for him.

Food issues still persist, and making further progress sits in the minds of his parents at every meal, every day. But when I look back at how far my nephew has come, I am completely blown away.

Once a week, we go to my sister’s for a family dinner; she and my nephew always have a beautiful meal prepared. As I watch him cut mindfully into his Indonesian Chicken, I realize how deeply this long, gentle path has affected him. Of course, there are many miles yet to go but one of the biggest obstacles of all – motivation – has been overcome. How do I know? An autographed picture of Ina Garten hangs on his wall as a daily reminder of his recent decision. The child who once gagged at the thought, smell and feel of food now wants to be a chef when he grows up. A basketball playing chef.


Sara Winter has an eleven-year-old nephew with autism. She has been his aide at home and school since his diagnosis in 2002. Sara is mom to two boys and the founder of Squag™, a recreational application for kids on the autism spectrum to connect with one another. Learn more at www.squag.com.

For more information on the references made in this article:

H.A.N.D.L.E: www.handle.org

R.D.I.: www.rdiconnect.com

Kid’s health website with videos: www.kidshealth.org

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2011. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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