Anna Moyer is a Ph.D. student in human genetics and has a younger brother with Down syndrome. She created the “Your Special Chef” visual recipe website (yourspecialchef.net) as a high school project.
Below, she provides some advice on how to make cooking fun and safe for people with special needs.
Focus on Safety. Don’t teach a technique or use a tool unless you are prepared for the individual to use it independently. Point out the potential dangers of each step, using signs, cues or words. I learned this the hard way after teaching my younger brother to cook a microwave quesadilla for 30 seconds. A few weeks later, when a babysitter left him alone, he microwaved a quesadilla for 30 minutes — resulting in a melted plate, a little smoke, and a near disaster.
Make it Social. They can share what they’ve cooked, whether with the neighbors, on social media, or at a party. For individuals who are socially inclined but may not be excited to cook, sharing food with others can be a powerful motivator. In addition, cooking offers a structured activity by which individuals can learn to problem solve and work as a group.
Start out Simple. Meals don’t need to be elaborate to provide valuable experience. Even making a PB&J sandwich involves reading and understanding a recipe, opening jars, and using a utensil to spread. Pre-cooking activities can strengthen kitchen skills safely, and visual picture recipes can be used to supplement written instructions.
Make Substitutions. If one aspect of cooking is particularly challenging, look for ways to avoid the problem entirely. For instance, if fractions and measuring are difficult concepts, try using color-coded measuring cups and spoons that match visual recipes. If fine motor skills and coordination are a problem, look for adaptive cooking tools that make cooking tasks simpler, such as spring loaded tongs or a plastic lettuce knife.
Work Stress-Free. Above all else, cooking should be presented as a fun and interactive activity. If the recipe is too hard or you display frustration when something goes wrong, aspiring cooks may develop negative feelings toward the kitchen. Expect failed recipes and massive messes, and you’ll be able to keep your cool when it gets hot in the kitchen.