There are picky eaters, and then there are kids who can’t stand the sensation of a grape tomato exploding in their mouth.
Children with autism spectrum disorders tend to prefer certain sensations and avoid others (loud noises, certain colors, too many people). The same goes for food: they are often extremely sensitive to certain tastes, smells, temperatures, textures and appearance. This sensitivity leads to avoidance of certain foods or food groups and to a restrictive diet.
Sensory Enrichment Therapy, a science-based approach in which specific experiences can help dampen such responses in the brain, provides people with autism with different sensory stimuli on a daily basis.
According to the abstract of a 2016 study cited in the journal Neuronal PlasticitySensory Enrichment Therapy conducted in more than 1,000 young subjects resulted in “significant overall gains for a variety of symptoms…including learning, memory, anxiety, attention span, motor skills, eating, sleeping, sensory processing, self-esteem, communication, social skills and mood/autism behaviors.”
Katie Murwin, who started Phoenix-based Sensory Cooking in 2017, uses the kitchen for Sensory Enrichment Therapy and teaches children with autism to cook.
Murwin’s inspiration? Her son Nick, now 25 years old and the videographer of the show.
Twelve years ago, Murwin and her husband, Todd, started a nonprofit organization called Kids With Autism Can to help people with autism gain independence through social activities, education, and therapy.
Murwin noticed how her own son, who barely smiled, lit up brightly as he helped her in the kitchen.
She researched cooking schools for special needs children but came up empty handed and decided to do it herself.
Murwin started out with Nick and a group of eight kids they met through Kids With Autism Can. Prior to COVID-19, sessions were held at Murwin’s home. The children prepared a meal from start to finish, then sat down and ate together. A speech therapist and an occupational therapist were usually present.
“I don’t force them to eat everything, but I encourage them to try something new,” explains Murwin. “I say, ‘If you can’t eat it, will you smell it or pick it up and feel it?'”
When COVID-19 struck, she worked with Give Garden — a children’s recipe delivery service developed by a registered dietitian — to deliver boxes of groceries to families and held classes via Zoom.
“I’ve had 30-year-olds and 7-year-olds, and it works,” says Murwin. “Some are non-verbal, but they can give me a thumbs-up or maybe say ‘yes.’ I think it works because the people who sign up for it are all in.”
She does not require a diagnosis and sometimes works with neurotypical children, but most often she focuses on neurodiverse individuals and asks a parent or support person to be present.
In addition, Murwin offers the sessions free of charge. “We really wanted the kids on the spectrum to have something positive to do that wasn’t expensive or difficult,” she says. The same goes for Kids With Autism Can social events.
For more advanced or one-on-one tuition, Sensory Cooking accepts payments from the federally funded Empowerment Scholarship Account, which is accessible to eligible homeschooling families. Aside from books and school curriculum, these funds cover tutoring and therapy. Murwin accepts private payment beyond the sessions, but the cooking sessions themselves are free.
“I wanted to offer something that we didn’t have before,” she says.
Others have done the same.
Denise Resnik, co-founder of the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center, founded the SMILE Biscotti bakery business in Phoenix in 2013 with her son Matt. “Matt helped me bake when I was about five years old,” Resnik recalls. “He didn’t want to eat any of it because he was such a picky eater, but it was something we could do together. Also, the activity was precise, had a beginning and an end, and allowed for the development of life skills like shopping and tidying up.”
Matt Resnik, who is largely nonverbal and whose parents were once advised to put him in an institution, is now 30 and has his own business baking and selling cookies.
The Sensory Cooking website contains recipes and videos. The videos consist of two components – sensory and speech – designed by the group’s occupational and speech therapists.
The sensory component focuses on textures, flavors, smells and sounds. For example, in a baking class or video, students might be asked to compare the texture of almond flour to regular flour.
The language component consists of asking questions. In the above case, students could talk about gluten or gluten-free foods.
Each Sensory Cooking course consists of three three-week sessions:
Session A focuses on reading recipes, the linguistic and sensory components, and preparing an article or two.
Session B involves immersion in sounds, tastes and smells; an invitation to try new things; and a step towards independence.
For Session C, participants create a grocery list, shop in person or online, take photos of their purchases, use videos of cooking/baking, and send Murwin a photo of the finished dish. “In Session C, they make vegetarian sushi,” she notes.
At the end, the students receive a certificate of completion.
Private lessons are available for individuals or groups of up to 12 people. The next group class will be in April, and in June Murwin will be offering classes for Arizona Autism United.
For Murwin, sensory cooking is about inclusivity. “Neurodiverse has to be really diverse. I am perfectly fortunate to have a class that blends non-verbal with highly intelligent graduate students. We come from our own place and understand that others come from theirs, and we can all work together,” she concludes.
Find out more about sensory cooking and upcoming courses at sensorycooking.net.