(NEW YORK) — Jojo Branch-Rodriguez, a 12-year-old boy on the autism spectrum, has never been a fan of fruits and vegetables. He struggled with eating foods like broccoli and avocado.
That was then. Now, Sensory Cooking, a Phoenix-based nonprofit that works with people on the spectrum to combat sensory overload from cooking, has helped Jojo make huge strides in food aversion.
“We were constantly eating hot dogs, pizza and hamburgers and it just wasn’t healthy,” Maria Rodriguez, Jojo’s mother, told ABC News.
After several weeks of sensory cooking classes, Jojo’s mom says her son has become open to trying new foods, eating broccoli, and even cooking recipes for foods like Asian fried dumplings.
Katie Murwin, founder and director of Sensory Cooking, uses a sensory therapy approach where she immerses her students in multi-sensory cooking classes – merging taste, smell and sound – hoping to provide strategies to improve motor and oral skills while expanding theirs food palate.
A 2017 study by AutismSpeaks found that children with autism were five times more likely to have trouble eating. Children with autism spectrum disorders often struggle with sensory processing problems — a brain disorder that affects both children and adults during development. Some of the triggering factors tend to be the taste, temperature, color, smell, and texture of everyday foods that they commonly avoid.
“Certain foods can lead to pain or upset stomach and other GI issues. As a result, many children with autism avoid certain foods,” Varleisha D. Gibbs, occupational therapist and vice president of practice engagement and capacity building at AOTA, Inc., told ABC News.
Murwin was inspired by her son Nicholas, who is also on the autism spectrum, after watching him fight in the kitchen. Murwin currently teaches 12 people aged 5 to 35. This full-fledged experience is offered via Zoom, and prior to COVID-19, it was conducted in person, typically with the presence of a rescuer or occupational therapist.
“I’m not trying to get you to eat quinoa and avocado on your first day. I’m trying to get you not to be afraid. I’m trying to get you to try a pepper, a carrot, or a raisin,” Murwin told ABC News.
Murwin has partnered with Give Garden, a Phoenix-based company that sends boxes of food to kids across the area for their Zoom cooking sessions.
Give Garden CEO Stephanie Lucas, who is also a Registered Dietitian, told ABC News’ Will Carr, “It really does feel like a gift. There’s tissue paper, they open the presents and all the food is in there, along with a culinary adventure card and the card itself initially talks about some nutrition ed. It’s really designed to talk about not good food and bad food. But why should we eat this food? What does it do for us?”
The stigma associated with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder continues to be that they are “picky eaters”.
It goes beyond picky eating, Gibbs said.
“If it’s the radio play, it could cause pain. Tactile defenses could actually send a message to your brain that there’s a threat, if you will, and that will automatically lead you into battle,” she said.
While it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact reason why food aversions are more common in people with autism, some researchers believe there’s a connection to some of the current research on microbiomes, which are your brain-gut connection and the ecosystem of bacteria that lives in all people.
“Children, and individuals with autism in general, tend to have some imbalance with these bacteria in the gut,” Gibbs said.
Rodriguez said she’s seen improvements in Jojo’s confidence and she loves witnessing her son’s newfound appreciation for healthy foods.
“He’s more confident and it was amazing to see that. It really warms my heart. … He’ll talk to people we meet on the street and he’ll say, ‘Oh, I love to cook. Oh, my favorite food is beef and broccoli, you know. It’s cannoli, it’s egg fried rice.” And there are so many things that involve cooking; it’s a foundation and it’s just opened so many doors,” she said.
- About 1 in 44 children has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder
- ASD is reported to occur in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups.
- ASD is more than four times more common in boys than girls.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.