This article features parents’ initiatives in helping their special needs children gain independence. Parents who set up Bake4Fund for persons with autism to learn and earn by baking, share their story.
By Lim Ang Nei and HY Pang
THE seed of hope for our children on the Autism Spectrum Disorder to live independently was planted when we mothers started a monthly cooking class in Jan 2008. As the children’s interest grew in tandem with their confidence in handling knives and hot ovens, we turned it into a weekly affair. In July 2009, Bake4Fund was birthed.
That our children have reached this point where they can learn and earn and be engaged in an activity they find fun and fulfillment, has given us parents reasons to rejoice and be thankful.
Like any other parents with special needs children, our primary focus was, and still is, about providing them with all the possible interventional therapies within our financial means to help them realise their full potential and to equip them for the future. At the heart of it, we desire to see our children lead a purpose-driven life.
Our kids may be less articulate and may appear to be socially inept at times but they are no less able in showing their affection and to let us know they are being loved.
We have past grieving for our kids of what they might have become had they been “neurologically typical”. Sure, along the way, we hit many bumps in our search for “cures” and anything with appealing sound bites. We had our share of our ups and downs from complaining about how the education system is failing our kids to managing the high cost of therapies and subjecting our kids to a casein-free, gluten-free diet. Not to mention the time spent ferrying them for their various activities.
As they are in the school going age group, we figured instead of looking at the doom and gloom around us, we got to find the rainbow, the cloud’s silver lining to help our kids. Surely, there must be something we can do with our children without costing an arm and a leg? The answer was found in the kitchen.
With our combined experiences and knowledge gained from attending courses on sensory integration therapy, behavioural modification therapy and mediated learning, we realise that the kitchen is a perfect place for incidental learning. We must admit, however, it took us a long while before it dawned on us.
Well before we officially turned the kitchen into our classroom, we noticed our children liked to hang out in the kitchen whenever we cooked. Because kitchen was never associated with “therapy time”, they learnt naturally by observing. Soon, they offered to stir the pot, peel the garlic and mix the cake batter. The absence of a maid made it a necessity for us mothers to spend time in the kitchen and it had turned out to be a blessing.
Having worked in a residential home in Auckland for adults with learning disabilities where they are encouraged to live independently, we realise that it is never too young to learn how to cook and bake. We also found inspiration in young adults who are participating in a supported living project in Taman Tun Dr Ismail under the aegis of Dignity and Services, a self- advocacy organisation for the learning disabled. There is something about the kitchen that draws people together. There is no shortage of laughter and team spirit when they hang out in the kitchen.
As parents we sometimes get so caught up in wanting our special needs children to be more inclined academically which usually means learning in a highly structured environment. Without realising it, we sometimes miss the opportunities for them to learn that are presented in our very own home.
In fact, they sooner they get comfortable in the kitchen the better. Because there will come a time when they need to live independently. If they learn to take care of their own meals and have avenues to earn money to support their living, what better place than the kitchen.
So we are learning, just like our kids, that there are ways and means to inject the element of fun in learning at home. Getting the kids to peel vegetables and fruits of different textures not only help them overcome their tactile problem. The very act of peeling helps them improve their motor skills. This goes the same for the use of knives. Of course, initially we were worried if they could handle such sharp objects without hurting themselves. But knife is an important tool in the kitchen. So, they have lots of opportunities to practise. They started with butter knives and have since progressed to using proper ones for slicing and dicing. They did cut their fingers occasionally but they know that all this is part of the process of learning and growing up. We have vegetables cut in all shapes and manner, almost like a random act. But the key point is, they are able to handle the knives with confidence. They have learnt that the very first thing they need to do before they start cooking is to wash their hands and put on their aprons.
Sure, there were occasions when there were more than egg shells than yolks and egg whites in the cake mixture. But at least the kids had overcome their sensory problem of handling eggs and having the courage and strength to crack them.
Before we introduce a new recipe, we simplify the steps. Example:1. Mix butter and sugar 2. Add eggs and flour 3. Bake. We get them to copy the recipe in their books before they proceed to bake. At the same time, we teach them that the word like “mix” is the same as “cream” or “add” or “stir” – all of which suggest that it is an “action” which involves combining the ingredients together. Usually we repeat the same recipe a few times until they gain mastery in understanding the sequence of steps, identifying the ingredients required and reading the labels.
We teach mathematics by using the measuring cups and spoons which are marked clearly as 1, ½, ¾ and ¼. The digital scale is very helpful in teaching them to understand addition and subtraction. Because they can read the numbers on the scale when they add or reduce the ingredient until it matches with the one listed, they get the idea of what it means to “add” and “take away”. We can’t say they have fully grasped the concept but they are getting there because mathematics is a subject they struggle with. The oven’s digital clock is also helpful in understanding the concept of timing. For instance, if the cookies require 18 minutes to bake, we teach them to use the digital clock to increase the time from zero to 18. When the timer buzzes, they know the cookies are done. We also use the manual timer to teach them “how much time left?” concept. We get them to set timer, say at 15 minutes and as the timer points to 10 or 5, we ask them until the food is done.
Besides getting them familiarised with the steps involved in baking and cooking, we also try our best to find healthy alternatives as ingredients. So, usually we have oats, bran and flaxseed as well as organic molasses sugar added to our recipes.
Since we started selling, the opportunities for them to learn baking increases in addition to their weekly classes. The money gained is saved with the view of setting up a proper place with a big, well equipped kitchen where they can learn, earn and live independently. We hope to see the day when an inclusive café is opened where our children can chill out, cook, paint, play musical instrument, sing, dance and do many more activities without being judged they are “odd” but are loved and cherished.
Bake4fund can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org