Baking can be a marmite activity. Some children love the mess, the fun of creating and seeing your creations when baked. For others it can cause panic at the mess, the uncertainty of what happens next and upset at the fact it’s not instantaneous.
J falls into the category of ‘thumbs down’ for baking. He doesn’t like mess and wet/sticky textures. He doesn’t have much of an attention span for anything not Star Wars or LEGO related and the fact you have to wait for it all to be ready is frustrating for him.
However, as it’s Christmas I thought I’d try and entice him to do some festive activities by making one of his favourite snacks…gingerbread biscuits. Whenever we go out to cafes or markets, J will hunt down gingerbread men. He’s a bit of a gingerbread expert. He only eats ones with no decorations or icing on it , and knows exactly which shops/cafes sell the ones he likes.
When Elvis the Elf showed J the ingredients and I explained what we were making, J was suddenly interested in baking. We used the recipe from BBC website.
So here’s how I encourage J to join in at a level that would boost his confidence and taking his autism into account.
As I said previously J does not have a long attention span outside of his key interests/fascinations. I made sure everything was set up ready, so everything was instantly ready. I read through the recipe to make sure I had every step organised in my head.
Go with the child’s strengths
You know your child best. You know what aspects of cooking they will enjoy most. For J, it’s things that are number based (numbers are a constant, there’s no social cues, no emotions so they appeal to J). I gave J the job of weighing ingredients. He’s great at recognising numerals so I told him which number to look for. He loved this bit and would help count out the spoonfuls we needed. I offered him the chance to do the mixing and he did stir a little but he then left to play lego.
I let him. There’s no point pushing it as he’ll just get frustrated which defeats purpose of trying to build up his confidence. I carried on with the mixing and kneading.
Be aware of sensory needs
Sensory needs can play a big part in baking. There’s the smell of ingredients, the texture of the mix, the sound of the beaters on the bowl, the taste which might not be what’s expected until cooked and the fact it might not look like what your baking which can be confusing.
Fear of the unknown is a loss of control. For some children who are autistic this is a scary prospect. Baking may not seem that much a control issue but if you think of all the steps and all the sensory output and all the things that might change, might go wrong…you’ll see that it is actually quite full on.
It’s best to prepare and try to cater for those areas your child struggles with. For us it’s the texture. I made sure I chose the wooden spoon with longest handle and a bowl that was deep so ingredients wouldn’t spill onto him. I did the rolling so all J had to do was push the cutters in. This meant he didn’t have to touch the mixture but was still part of the experience.
Praise and positive reinforcement
I made sure that I kept telling J how much fun I was having, how helpful he was being etc. It’s a great opportunity to reinforce the positives so it builds self esteem. Self belief is important for all children. For children with additional needs they can often be told/hear what they can’t do, realise they can’t do things their friends can do etc.
By praising J for helping decorate the gingerbread I have hopefully made him see how much fun something other than Star Wars and lego figures can be. Next time I ask J if he wants to help with baking he’ll remember all this and be more open to doing it again.
With many children visuals are stronger than what you tell them. By taking photos you can look through what you did, revisit the steps it took to make the gingerbread biscuits. You can also use these to create social stories for future baking projects or to create a visual step by step guide.
You can also use symbols to create ‘now and next’ board so your child knows what you’re doing and that baking will end and you can do other activities. I chose not to do this for gingerbread men. That’s because I wanted J to be able to come and go as he wanted. I wanted it to be a relaxed baking session rather than our structured activities. However you know what works best for your family.
These are the things that worked for us. There’s also other suggestions that we didn’t try but might be helpful, such as:
- Open windows so there’s not so much sensory overload of smells
- Try plastic spatula for mixing if wooden or metal spoons is too texture to hold onto.
- Use a countdown clock so children can physically see how long cooking will take.
- Mix by hand rather than processor of sound is a factor. Or wear ear defenders (ours are worth their weight in gold).
- Have some ready made gingerbread from shop just incase yours don’t turn out quite how child pictured them. End of the day process of baking is more important than the product themselves.