I have no memory of what we ate the year that my son George was diagnosed with autism. That was almost four years ago now and in my memory, that year is still a blur of disappointing appointments, upsetting conversations, and exhaustion mixed with despair. I know that we did eat—me, my husband, three-year-old George and my baby daughter, June. Maybe it was sandwiches or pizza and I am sure that there must have been nights when I did manage to cook but I don’t recall the four of us gathering to eat at the table together. Of course, back then, George did not sit still at a table long enough to eat more than two bites of anything.
Fast forward: like most parents who finally receive a diagnosis, a name for the various symptoms and behaviors that our precious child was exhibiting, my husband and me rallied. We pulled it together. We found a great pre-school for George and signed on to all of the therapeutic services that our county would pay for. We started RDI therapy privately and learned a lot. I spent many hours in the evenings, when the kids were asleep and Fred was kindly straightening up the chaos of the house, on the computer, discovering what Google had to tell me about autism. I avoided the sites that left me in worse despair and gravitated to places that offered some hope.
One of my most curious discoveries was the gluten-free/casein-free diet and all of the reports from parents about how it helped lessen their children’s symptoms of autism. As I researched more, I felt more open to trying the diet for George; his eating seemed to be getting more and more narrow by the day and I was concerned about how his lack of nutrition would impact his brain development. Although he had loved eating fruits and vegetables as a child, he refused them by age three. He would barely eat any protein and would gravitate towards fish crackers, pretzels or bagels. Reading about how children with gluten intolerance often want to eat only that which they are intolerant of made me think of George. I decided to try the diet.
What began with that decision was a step that has taken our family back on the path to balance and dare I say, simple happiness. The diet never “cured” George, but it helped his digestive track get back on track and it took a whole lot of edge off his behavior—fewer tantrums, better sleeping. Like many parents venturing into the diet, I had to rethink how I shopped and cooked. As someone who loves to cook, I took on a gluten-free kitchen with a sense of adventure and found myself happily spending more time in the kitchen. We started sitting down and enjoying meals—at least a few times a week—together as a family.
But the best thing about needing to cook so much of our food, rather than rely on take-out or prepared foods, was that I started cooking with my kids. I discovered that George, who struggles with language and a short attention span, loves to get involved in pouring, stirring, grinding and straining. Cooking became a way for us to connect and for George to learn important skills like counting and sequence.
Four years after my son’s diagnosis with autism, my heart is filled with hope for him. Seeing George in the kitchen makes me full of ambition for what he can learn and who he can become, given the right ways for him to take in and process information. Cooking has been one important way for him to develop many skills, including better attention and communication.
This month, Woodbine House is publishing my new cookbook, The Kitchen Classroom: 32 Visual GF/CF Recipes to Boost Development. I hope that you will find The Kitchen Classroom to be a useful tool to connect and communicate with your children, while making great food. Whether you cook a lot together already or if this is a new activity for you, Kitchen Classroom contains many helpful ideas for both parents and kids. Visit me at www.kitchenclassroom4kids.com and let me know what it’s like to share time in the kitchen with your fabulous kids.