Teach healthy living skills to adults with autism

 
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Introducing new foods and skills through healthy cooking

We all know a picky eater. Many of us have friends that are impossible to cook for and we’ve all heard stories of children who refuse to eat anything that isn’t orange. These traits often become more pronounced when someone is on the autism spectrum. Up to seventy percent of children on the spectrum have narrow eating habits making it a challenge for families and caregivers to expand food choices.

CSS has a new Salad Group which utilizes independent input and decisions while broadening the list of “good” vegetables that individuals want to eat. This group is composed of individuals with developmental disabilities including autism. Many members of the class used to dislike vegetables but now they all enjoy not only making their salads but eating them too.

Every week there is a new vegetable to try that is not part of the salad. This week it’s cherry tomatoes. Each taster gets the opportunity to taste and vote with their picture if they like or dislike the vegetable. Everyone likes the chance to put their vote on the board and they see that their choice matters. All but one group member decides that cherry tomatoes are good.

Ingredient lists are handed to every group member at the beginning of class. The week before each person picked out items for their salads and will now use these ingredients to truly make their unique salad. Based on this list they then choose what they’d like to cut first. The knives are made out of special blunt nylon material that will not accidentally cut skin but still easily cuts vegetables with a sawing motion. By using a safe knife more people can participate fully. Every step of the way is a choice for the individual. No vegetable or task is forced on anyone. No one is ever told they must eat something or that they need to hurry up. By giving the opportunity to decide for oneself, an individual becomes involved and interested in participating. Group members became invested in their salad creations

Initially, when the class first met, there were a few individuals that refused to even chop any vegetables using the safe knives. After a few weeks even the most reluctant began to enjoy cutting up the vegetables for their salad.

Everybody’s salad is different giving each salad artist the opportunity to express himself. On top of flavor, much of a salad is texture and color. Each salad becomes a work of art that many people appreciate. After the class others enjoy dropping by to eat the leftovers, sampling one or several salads. This increases vegetable exposure beyond the salad group itself. Individuals who normally won’t eat salads are excited to visit the kitchen for a chance to taste the creations.

At the end of each class, each participant picks out the ingredients to go into their salad for the following week. As ingredients vary so do the salads. Joey says his salad is good this week, but he thinks next week he’d like to try a different dressing. Everyone leaves happy with what they’ve made and looks forward to the next week and the chance to do it again.

Having friends over for dinner is a time-honored tradition, and it’s no different here at Community Support Services. It’s not just a meal; it’s an event that gives individuals a chance to strengthen social interactions in a safe environment.

Dinner groups meet regularly at the CSS kitchen, but they also bring the fun into their own homes. Friends take turns having each other over, preparing and hosting the meals.

The planning begins earlier in the week, when individuals discuss possible meal options with their staff. While favorite meals can take precedence, dinner group offers the opportunity to introduce new options to guests. The individuals use what they can from the CSS gardens, and plan a trip to the grocery for the rest.

Eating in a group is a great time to work on table manners. Practicing meal etiquette with friends allows individuals to build on their skill sets, which they carry beyond the group into other meals and social interactions.

Bringing dinner group into the homes is a chance for individuals to fine-tune the life skills they are learning at CSS, building the confidence to do the same when they are out in the community and having fun with friends at the same time!

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Few foods in life evoke warm summer days better than sautéed squash fresh picked from the garden. Participants in the CSS Garden to Table program have been working hard and enjoying the results!

It’s mid-summer here in Maryland and the squashes are beginning to arrive in abundance.  Specifically we’ve begun harvesting summer squashes such as the typical yellow, crookneck and patty pan squash.

Squash is a vegetable with a long tradition in North America. It is the lynchpin of the “three sisters” crop technique. Often known as companion planting it means that when you plant the different crops close together they all do better than they would apart. In this case, the three sisters are squash, corn and beans. Corn provides the much needed shade for squash to be cultivated successfully while the squash vines prohibit weed growth allowing the corn and beans to flourish. Beans then add nitrogen to the soil sharing nutrients between all three plans. The CSS gardens at Wootton’s Mill Park are planted with this symbiosis in mind thus maximizing the space and increasing the yield from all three crops.

Crops are tended carefully by our Gardening Group throughout the workweek. Individuals work in shifts being careful not to overheat, and many breaks are taken for shade and water.  July is a busy time in the garden with weeding, harvesting and replanting. There’s more than enough work for everyone. The crew gathers ripened vegetables, taking care not to damage the produce.

The harvested vegetables are brought back to the CSS kitchen where the dinner group then gets the chance to use them in their meals. A crowd favorite is to simply sauté squash with onions and bell peppers. After cutting the vegetables into manageable pieces, they are placed in a pan with a small amount of oil and seasonings and cooked until the vegetables are tender. The Tuesday dinner group enjoys squash as an ample side dish. As Craig S. says, “I like it because I grow it at work!”

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The Healthy Cooking class at 1 o’clock on Thursday is a favorite for individuals and staff alike! The group is full of energy and anticipation as they gather, chatting about how they like learning to cook – and the fact that the food tastes great while also being good for them is an added bonus! 

Adam Rast, the cooking instructor at CSS, guides the class through each step of the cooking process of today’s recipe for Peanut Butter Bread. Each member of the group takes a turn as head chef while another group member reads the instructions aloud. They rotate until all the ingredients have come together, staying engaged during each step and supporting each other with applause! 

With the bread in the oven, the group utilizes the time by cleaning up the mess inevitably left behind by any kitchen project. Dishes are washed and dried while the recipe is reviewed. As the aroma of peanut butter wafts from the oven, Michael S. keeps a close eye on the timer, letting the rest of the group know how much time stands between them and their delicious snack. The increasingly hungry group distracts themselves by asking questions about the recipe. Then they kick back and relax, discussing their upcoming plans. 

At last, the final minute of baking time has arrived. The class counts down the seconds aloud and erupts in a cheer as the timer buzzes! The warm bread is sliced and passed around the table. The group savors the fruits of their labor, proving the Healthy Cooking class is not only educational but fun, and most importantly, delicious as well! 

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Lettuces, peppers, and cabbage oh my! The Gardening Crew at CSS has been in full gear this spring. It’s been an exciting season as we battled the weather to ensure the success of this year’s crop of vegetables. Late cold spells didn’t dampen enthusiasm one bit as we started seedlings indoors and then began transplanting the moment it looked like we were safely free of winter. Gardeners still got some exciting late season frost warnings but the carefully tended plants are now thriving underneath the summer sun. 

Individuals with autism may react differently to their environment and sometimes will over-react, or under-react, to stimuli involving touch, sight, sound, taste and smell. Instructional associates focus on activities to help program participants handle sensory stimuli, all while building communication and social skills. Gardening nurtures these skills while connecting the budding agricultural enthusiasts with nature. The full seedling to harvest process gives a sense of appreciation as we teach hands-on training while caring for our vegetables.

These valuable skills are also transferrable to finding employment opportunities. From landscape training to different watering and harvesting techniques CSS is thrilled to be able to continue our Healthy Living Skills program. It’s great to see the progress of our gardens as we augment individuals’ skillsets. 

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Organization

Project Leader

Ashley Chatneuff

Communications Coordinator
Gaithersburg, MD United States

Where is this project located?

Map of Teach healthy living skills to adults with autism