A couple of weeks ago, my family and I spent five amazing days at Tikvah Family Camp at Ramah in the Poconos, connecting with other families who have children with a range of special needs and enjoying camp life. During the mornings, children are paired with “Chavereem” who lead them in sports, art, swimming and other activities while parents get time to themselves. One of my highlights from this year’s camp was when I met up with my 11-year-old son, George, who has autism, and his lovely Chavera Davida at lunch. “George LOVED cooking!” Davida exclaimed. “He was so focused and into it. He did a great job.”

I smiled. George and I have been cooking together since he was four, when a cognitive-behavioral therapist recommended cooking as a way for us to engage in back and forth sharing and connecting. I thought she was crazy; at that time, George’s behavior was so hyper that he might only focus on a preferred activity for a minute at a time.

But because I love cooking — and because I was willing to try anything to connect with my child who couldn’t speak and had tantrums throughout the day — I gave it a try. George liked it. I liked it. We started modestly, dumping ingredients for a trail mix into a bowl and stirring with a spoon. We sliced bananas using a plastic knife. We moved onto more complicated recipes, ones where dry ingredients and wet ingredients needed to be mixed separately and then combined.

Messes were made and cleaned up. Some of our recipes came out great, others not so much. George was gluten and dairy-free, so I was learning a whole new way to bake. His intense sensory needs to touch and smell things were met in an appropriate way through cooking. What I noticed was his excitement to join me when I pulled out the mixing bowls and his beaming face when he carried a tray of cookies to the oven.

It has always been important for me to connect George to his Jewish heritage, and so before I knew the best way to give him a Jewish education, we started cooking our way through the holidays: honey cake at Rosh Hashanah, peeling and grating potatoes at Hanukkah, chopping fruit for different kinds of charoset at Pesach. When George was younger (and sometime still), our extended family holiday gatherings could overwhelm him with all of the people and the noise we make. He might prefer to say hello and then retreat upstairs to watch a video once the party gets started; and yet, his presence is strongly felt as aunts and uncles kvell over the food that he has helped me to prepare.

In the cooking class at Tikvah, I saw that the skills we have been working on together for years are now becoming generalized — he brought his same focus and passion to a new teacher, a new setting, a new class.
George still struggles with communication and sensory needs; his autism is complex and challenging. And despite the obstacles that he faces in daily living, George is a very happy and also deeply spiritual person. He returned from Tikvah singing so many Jewish songs, listening to Mattisyahu on his iPad and smiling for days.

Cooking is now one of many activities that we do together that help us to connect and communicate. We also love taking our dog for nature walks, listening to music, singing and dancing. But I am grateful that cooking has been an important way for us to connect to our Jewish year and to each other as time moves forward and I see my son becoming a young man.

These experiences inspired me so much that I wrote The Kitchen Classroom, a children’s cookbook, four years ago. Every week, I still receive e-mails from parents who have enjoyed cooking with children of all abilities.
As the new Jewish year approaches, I encourage you to try cooking with your child! Visit me at www.kitchenclassroom4kids.com for encouragement and ideas!

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer loves cooking with her kids George and June and recently released a cooking video to accompany "The Kitchen Classroom." She directs Jewish Learning Venture's Whole Community Inclusion, coordinates Celebrations! at Mishkan Shalom and loves writing/editing for "The New Normal."