Teach healthy living skills to adults with autism

by Community Support Services, Inc.

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!”


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! 


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. 


Learning about nutrition and helping to prepare healthy snacks during the day program is a good introduction to some of the key components of embracing a healthy lifestyle, but the best place to reinforce healthy eating habits is in the home. My last stop of the evening, after all of the cooking classes and groups have left for the day, is always to one of the many homes in the CSS residential community. 


Every home in the residential program has a house menu, many of which are tailored to the specific dietary needs of the individuals living in the house. By visiting the houses at dinner time I am able to assist the staff in following their house menus and help them to find creative ways of including more of the foods that their clients enjoy. In this way we ensure that the individuals are enjoying the food they eat in addition to getting the nutrition they need to stay healthy.


In all of the houses, individuals are encouraged to participate in preparing their own meals. With guidance and supervision, many high functioning individuals are able to prepare meals independently. Making a healthy dinner can become a fun activity for everyone to enjoy instead of a chore. While the individuals sit down and enjoy the meal, I meet with the staff and discuss strategies to meet the clients’ nutritional needs and keep them satisfied while following the guidelines laid out in the planned menus. Subjects in this area include developing healthy shopping habits, understanding proper food sanitation, and recognizing healthy alternatives to components of the meal that the individuals don't like.


Low-Guilt Comfort food

Most people don't get cravings for celery sticks and quinoa. Often times the foods that we crave are the ones that do the least for our bodies, at least from the standpoint of trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle. One way of overcoming such cravings is to simply cheat! Find creative ways to make the junk food that you crave into a healthy meal that you can feel good about indulging in. Think about the criteria that make healthy foods good for you and then look for innovative ways to make the less-healthy foods that you crave fit into that group. The following recipe is a variation on the classic macaroni and cheese that is so easy to make and satisfying to eat, you'll never buy the prepackaged stuff again (as if you could even call that stuff "cheese!”).


Low-Fat Homemade Mac'n'Cheese with Broccoli


1/2 box Whole Wheat pasta

1 can Low-Fat Condensed Cheddar and Broccoli soup

1 cup Fat-free Milk

1 cup Low-Fat Shredded Cheddar cheese

2 cups Broccoli, steamed

Garlic and onion powder to taste

Black pepper to taste


Boil pasta according to package directions; Drain and set aside. While the pasta is boiling, combine condensed soup and milk in a medium sized pot. 

Bring the soup to a simmer over medium heat and stir until it is blended well and has thickened slightly; remove from heat. 

Return the drained pasta to the pot and pour the cheddar soup mixture on top of it; add the shredded cheese and cooked broccoli and gently fold the ingredients into the pasta. Place the pot over very low heat and continue to mix until the cheese is melted and the pasta is coated with sauce.


Makes 4 servings

Cooking as therapy

There are few things in life that bring such immediate satisfaction as sitting down and enjoying a tasty snack. My goal each day in Cooking Class is to supplement that enjoyment with an understanding of where our food comes from, how it is made, and how knowing what goes into our food can help us to make healthy food choices.

Although the common theme of the classes is learning to prepare healthy food, I maintain the premise that simply being in the kitchen opens infinite opportunities for therapeutic activity: Students apply critical thinking skills to recognize and measure ingredients; basic motor skills are engaged in holding and using kitchen tools; examining the recipe as a group is an opportunity for students to utilize reading skills as well as verbal and social skills. The list of benefits goes on and on and at the end of it all we are left with not only the gratification of having accomplished a series of tasks, we are able to sit down and enjoy the product of our labors as reinforcement for a job well done.


Holiday favorites

In my mind, nothing heralds the start of the holiday season quite like the smell of freshly baked gingerbread! Something about the special blend of spicy ginger and clove with hints of fragrant nutmeg and cinnamon just makes us feel comforted and warm.  This recipe produces a loaf of moist, cake-like gingerbread.

This recipe is relatively low in sugar, calling instead for black strap molasses. Unlike refined sugars, molasses contains trace amounts of vitamins and significant amounts of several minerals. Blackstrap molasses is a source of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron; one tablespoon provides up to 20 percent of the daily value of each of those nutrients. The fact that this recipes calls for no egg or dairy products also makes it entirely vegan. The addition of it being infinitely simple to make is a great holiday bonus.




1 Cup dark molasses

                ½ Cup brown sugar

                ½ cup Canola oil

                ½ teaspoon cinnamon

                ½ teaspoon ground clove

                ½ teaspoon nutmeg

                1 teaspoon ground ginger

                1 Cup boiling water

                2 ½ Cups Flour

                1 teaspoon Baking Soda


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. In a mixing bowl, blend together the canola oil, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, ginger, brown sugar and molasses.
  3. Stir in boiling water.
  4. Mix in flour.
  5. Dissolve the Baking Soda in 2 tablespoons of hot water and add to the batter.
  6. Pour the batter into a greased 8x8x2 inch baking pan and bake for 30 minutes, or until a cake tester or toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. 



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Organization Information

Community Support Services, Inc.

Location: Gaithersburg, MD - USA
Website: http:/​/​www.css-md.org
Project Leader:
Ashley Chatneuff
Communications Coordinator
Gaithersburg, MD United States
$22,390 raised of $30,000 goal
263 donations
$7,610 to go
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