For years, Philadelphia-area mother Erica Daniels tried everything — sports, therapies, play dates — to communicate with her autistic son, Leo. Desperate to connect with him, she finally found a way — in the kitchen.
Doctors diagnosed Leo, now 11, with autism at 21 months. The once-bubbly baby suddenly withdrew, often sitting in his high chair and staring out the window for lengths of time, Daniels told TODAY Food.
On top of the many other social, physical and academic challenges many autistic kids face, Leo also suffers from severe food allergies and gastro-intestinal problems, which are relatively common among his autistic peers, Daniels says. (A 2014 meta-analysis in the journal Pediatrics showed that gastro-intestinal disorders are four times more prevalent in autistic children.)
So, Daniels, a single parent, spent untold hours coming up with meals Leo could eat, with him often at her side.
Then, it dawned on her: “The kitchen is where you’d see him shine.”
Soon, Leo started doing things on his own: taking ingredients out, trying his best to crack eggs. “I would turn around and say, ‘Do you want to make a cake, is that what you’re trying to tell me?’ ” Daniels says. “It was just natural. It was where I was spending a lot of my time, and I guess he wanted to be with me.”
Fortunately, Leo’s sister, Scarlett, 9, is a…