July 26, 2022

Executive Functioning when cooking

The reasons behind why you might find cooking challenging and how to make the process easier

Lydia Wilkins

Guest Writer from Mademoiselle Women - Documenting life on the Autistic Spectrum

Executive Functioning when cooking

If you listen closely in the quiet, in the silences, you will hear it; a lot of people on the Autistic spectrum are really struggling with cooking, baking, and almost everything related to food preparation. The kitchen is an inaccessible place, fraught with danger and the domestic wizardry of metal cutlery-ware. Just talk to your Autistic friends, your colleagues, the person behind the counter at your supermarket - and you will find that this is quite a widespread issue.

It's really not an unusual issue, but there is no research that fully contextualises this problem. But being able to cook/bake/prepare food, in line with your abilities and access needs, is crucial when it comes to the topic of independence. Food education is crucial - and sometimes the educational system is just not up to scratch for teaching Autistic individuals. Executive functioning is a challenge when cooking - but here is the lowdown of all you need to know, as well as some steps that can help make cooking easier.

What is Executive Functioning?

If you Google the term, Executive Function is generally described as being a set of mental skills everyone has - and they include things such as working memory, being able to think flexibly, and other areas like that.

A former support worker for me personally described it as though everyone has a small personal assistant (PA) in their brain, an individual who is in charge of just about everything we need to be able to do in order to function on a daily basis. My former employer also had another metaphor for this; imagine that these skills are a set of cogs, and in order for a task to be carried out, all of them have to work together, turn together, for it to be completed. However, when you are Autistic, the cogs may become swollen due to too much input - such as if the environment is too noisy, or there are too many tasks.

Executive functioning can sometimes be an issue when you are Autistic - but there are some basic, inexpensive adaptations that can be put in place to help.

Why is cooking harder when you are Autistic?

Let’s just put this out there: in short, the world of everything to do with food preparation is not that accessible, unless you are prepared to spend an inordinate amount of time investing in learning, practicing, and trying to jump extra hoops that Neurotypical individuals don’t have to on a daily basis. No one really thought about Autistic individuals when it came to the kitchen.

If you are considered to be literal, you might find the language of recipes and instructions really difficult to interpret; why would you say to heat something up over a light heat, when heat does not have a mass? Just how big is a knob of butter, or a dab of butter? Language is everything - and yet people do not just say what they mean. Recipes and instructions often hide helpful information, the parts that Neurotypical individuals just seem to innately know - and trying to create something tangible becomes difficult.

Executive functioning challenges make cooking or baking potentially difficult as well. You have to ‘sequence’ tasks in order to bake, say, a chicken kiev. But what about chips on the side? They have to cook for different time periods, all the while trying to avoid burning - and sequencing this can be difficult. Task initiation is also another area that may be potentially impacted by executive functioning challenges.

These are just some of the areas as to why cooking may be harder if you are on the Autistic spectrum. Cooking is difficult for many people, but being on the Autistic spectrum presents another layer of challenges. You can’t ‘just learn’ away your challenges - and practice takes a lot of extra time and energy, making it an unreasonable expectation.

What adaptations can you make to help?

Accessibillity does not have to be expensive - and there are options that are very simple as well as affordable, to suit a wide range of budgets.

First of all, sign up to Tiimo! Activities are readily available at your fingertips to help with your executive functioning - and there is a new activity in the app (written by me!) to help you with cooking, too. Technology is not a sin, and can actually help your productivity as well.


Image text: The pre-made 'get ready to cook/bake activity' in the Tiimo library which you can add straight into your schedule, or edit to make it more suitable for your needs

Before you start cooking, make sure that you have all the ingredients lined up - and that you have pre-prepared the ingredients that are needed for this. (So for example, if I make a pot of pasta with salad greens mixed in with the sauce, I always slice them up beforehand.) This saves time and energy, and will help in terms of the task execution and sequencing.

When it comes to physically cooking, time can seemingly fly past really quickly - time agnosia or time blindness is often used to describe this. Consider using a timer, such as the focus timer in Tiimo, or your regular one on your phone - just make sure to change the tone when time is up, as loud noises are not always pleasant. If you prefer, you could always use liquid timers; they can be imprecise, but they act as a great visual prompt.

Writing out the recipe with a step by step time stamp on it could also help - especially if you find timing difficult. This can be created as a series of activities within the Tiimo App, or even just on a piece of paper. Just be aware of the duration food needs to cook - which you can virtually always find on the back of food packaging.

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What is the impact?

Autistic individuals are so often told that everything is their fault - and that they should just ostensibly learn how to cope, learn skills, learn to do better. This is an unfair expectation, and one that places an unfair amount of responsibility incumbent on the Autistic person. Difference is not a crime - and it should be celebrated.

If you give someone the tools to help themselves, to be independent in line with their access needs, the impact can be hugely positive. Autistic people are more than capable of this but just need a bit of help sometimes.

Lydia is an Autistic UK-based journalist. She is particularly passionate about disability and social justice issues. She is also the author of the Autism Friendly cook book which will be released in November 2022, but is now available to preorder. She will also soon be launching a podcast all about Autism and Food (& which Tiimo is very excited about sponsoring!) You can find her blog and newsletter here

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