Deborah French is the mother of four children, including two children with special needs. Her positive experiences of cooking with her son Henry who has autism and her daughter Amariah who has Down's syndrome have led to her writing 'The Cookbook for Children with Special Needs' which introduces children to the fundamentals of food preparation, healthy eating and cookery skills. She is also a cookery teacher and activity coordinator for children and their families with special needs. We sat down to talk to her about her experiences as a mother, cook and writer so far...
Tell us about the journey which led you to writing ‘The Cookbook for Children with Special Needs’?
I gave birth to my second child Amariah, who was born with Down's syndrome, when I was 25 years old. A year later when my eldest son Henry was two we were told that he had high functioning autism. No prior experience or education could have prepared me for our situation. I spent the first years drifting in and out of sadness fearing my own decisions and desperate for answers that could perhaps 'fix' our situation. It was only when I began believing in my own ability that my confidence grew and as progress was made, I saw how much I was able to help my children. I always listened to every piece of advice from doctors and therapists alike; yet I implemented what I agreed with and for the rest, I went with my gut feeling.
I decided to teach Henry by drawing pictures to help him understand the world around him and the role he plays. The results were immediate which paved the way for me to write a book for children on the autistic spectrum to prepare for starting school. On my quest for a publisher, I was asked by ASD Publishing to take a step back and write my own story down. Though I found it difficult to believe that anyone would be interested, I did just that and in three months wrote my memoir A Brief Moment in Time. I was awarded an Honorary Mention Award at the London and New York Book Festivals in 2013 and that paved the way for my future books.
How was your first experience of cooking with your son?
One winter's day when Henry was four years old, we decided to bake cookies. The assessments and summaries for Henry up to that point had all been the same; low muscle tone and hypermobility, coupled with poor gross and fine motor skills and nothing seemed to help reduce the symptoms. I purchased supersized cookie cutters to help compensate for clumsy fingers. Yet, while at work in the kitchen, I was surprised to see that Henry's movements were controlled and attentive. His cookie shapes were immaculate and as freshly baked cookies came out of the oven, I realised that in the kitchen Henry's concentration and fine motor skills were excellent. It was a huge turning point for me.
How does that compare to your experience of cooking with your daughter?
My daughter Amariah loves food preparation and is very active in her school preparing menus and simple dishes for the school cafeteria. At home we bake cookies together and I have a special chopping implement that enables her to cut vegetables - because she suffers from sensory issues, a kitchen knife would be dangerous at this stage. We work very slowly. When I see she wants to try something new or get involved, that's when I encourage her participation. I only want her experience to promote confidence in her own ability so we try new things as and when she's ready.
Have you had a defining moment when teaching your children to cook?
Yes, that was the moment when my son baked the first batch of cookies. In my experience children need a relaxed and fun environment to tackle a learning difficulty because it's in those circumstances that they don't realise they're learning and therefore develop the fastest. Once I'd observed that Henry had no difficulty with concentration or fine motor skills while working in the kitchen, it started the ball rolling.
What have been your biggest challenges when cooking with your children?
Instilling the importance of health and safety; whether it be handling a chopping knife or raw and cooked food. I have said to my children strictly from day one: if you would like to work with mummy in the kitchen you must listen to everything I say. It's important that children learn from the outset that even though it's fun and exciting to prepare food, there are real dangers too. Risks cannot be taken and a huge part of food prepartion is being grown up enough to be aware of the dangers and know how to prevent them.
What practical advice can you give parents on reducing possible frustration or anxiety when it comes to cooking?
Cookery cannot be taught or learnt under stress. Many parents find food preparation a challenge so it's only an activity to be undertaken during times of quiet and with patience. I would recommend encouraging your child to help unpack and put away shopping to begin with. Then perhaps move on to washing vegetables to be used for a meal. Take the cue from your child, as they show increased interest then encourage it. Children don't instinctively know the enjoyment that cooking will give them, they'll learn slowly the more they're involved in the kitchen environment. When you do begin cooking, be sure to start with very simple dishes that have minimal ingredients, steps and cooking times. Too much, too soon will overwhelm both parent and child.
What techniques do you use to make the process of digesting information and following directions easier?
Children learn best by example and in very slow steps. Techniques are learnt way before a child learns how to follow a recipe. It's this fact that is the most important when working with children in the kitchen. In every cookery class the lesson is based on visual explanation and practice of the required techniques. If we're peeling a carrot for example I'll take one and give one to the child. I show them how I hold the carrot, the peeler and let them copy me step by step. Then on the next occasion where carrot peeling is required, the child remembers what to do and feels confident to get started by themselves. Throughout my classes, I also encourage the child to seek help as and when they need, this too helps them feel comfortable to take the step themselves knowing I'm close by.
What tips would you give to someone cooking with a sensory defensive child?
It's crucial to be aware of the child's restrictions before starting to work with them in the kitchen and to make appropriate adjustments. Sensory defensiveness is a negative reaction to one or more types of sensations; in the kitchen, touch, tastes and smells are the primary issues. In order to avoid meltdowns or negative associations with food preparation in the future, choose to prepare dishes with your child that do not utilise any of the triggers that may affect them.
What tips would you give to someone cooking with a sensory seeking child?
Sensory seekers are constantly in search of ways to satisfy their craving for sensory stimulation. It can be an extremely distracting disability for a child and is powerful enough to completely disrupt their focus. This of course can be dangerous when working in the kitchen. It's important to find a balance between removing any triggers completely and having one or two readily available at the same time. Sensory seekers must have the ability to satisfy their need for stimulation in a controlled way at anytime to prevent a meltdown.
As an example, I wouldn't recommend a flannel style apron to be worn for a child that rubs their hands frequently over the textured surface. Having the apron there all the time will distract the child and their hands will constantly be 'unavailable'. I would however have a flannel towel close by for the child to use while they cook. Therefore the trigger is there but can be controlled by the parent with an explanation that the towel is only used when we wash our hands.
Again, this requires pre-planning. Identify the triggers before inviting your child into the kitchen, think of ways to moderate different props to support your child's sensory need while not allowing it to dominate and overtake the activity.
Have you learnt anything surprising about your children since you began cooking with them?
I love learning about their creative ability and individual tastes; likes and dislikes. I think a huge part of teaching children how to cook is to encourage them to experiment with their own tastes and presentation skills. At the end of each recipe in my book there is a section for 'Thoughts and Comments' and it's here that I ask my children and all my students to consider what they liked or didn't like about the dish. When they note down flavours or additions they made, the next time they can recreate the dish by trusting their own instincts and tastes. This develops creative flair, boosting their self confidence at the same time.
What big lesson do you feel your children have taught you?
How much they can actually do themselves and how quickly they can learn and grasp new skills when being taught in a relaxed, creative environment.
If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice for when you first became a mother, what would it be?
Trust your instincts.
Do you have experience of cooking with children with special needs? Share your stories below...