I have a 16-year-old daughter with high functioning autism (HFA) who prefers to be called VJ… and she uses knives.
VJ wasn’t always ‘high funtioning’. Originally, she was diagnosed as low-functioning & non-verbal, because she only had 4-5 words she used regularly… though I’m not sure “wevit” (means: whatever or however you want it is fine by me) counts as a word.
There was a time when she wasn’t allowed to use a fork, much less a kitchen knife. Yet, that’s exactly what she was doing when a friend we hadn’t seen in over a year came to visit a few days ago. I was peeling apples for my series on pies while chatting with this friend. VJ walked up and asked if I needed help. Without thinking I pushed the kitchen knife over to her and asked her to start slicing the peeled apples. VJ set about happily slicing the apples, and then quartering the slices before dropping them into the citric acid bath. She didn’t require any instructions, because it’s something she’s done fifty times before. It’s one of those things I’ve started to take for granted.
My friend, on the other hand, was totally taken aback. She’s known VJ for 5 years, and knows that she’s made tremendous progress. But, because she isn’t here every single day, like I am, my friend sees the strides more readily than I do sometimes. This was one of those times.
This friend is not foreign to autism spectrum disorders (ASD) either, as all three of her older brothers have one form of autism or another. This is a young woman who, at the age of 25 and only a year out of college, has moved back in with her family to take care of not only those autistic brothers, but her aging parents as well. She is very brave… and very familiar with autism.
“You’re okay with her using a knife?” my friend asked.
Yes, I’m okay with VJ using a knife. We worked very hard at getting her to the point where she could be trusted with a knife in the first place. But it wasn’t very easy.
Like most parents of children with autism my husband and I were hesitant to let our daughter into the kitchen. We tried to just teach her how to use a table knife, starting with an old fashioned butter knife, the kind with no edges or sharp points. That, however, didn’t work very well.
Then her occupational therapist suggested using a bowl scraper, the logic there being that her fine motor skills might not be good enough for her to control the smaller butter knife, hence she was overwhelmed. I wasn’t sure about that since her autistic obsession is art, and she is and has always been a very gifted artist. Her fine motor skills with her hands are actually incredible. But, we tried it anyway. Again, that didn’t work very well.
And then the day came when I caught her cutting bread into triangles with a vegetable scraper.
Now, I’m a cook. I worked part of my way through college in restaurants and professional kitchens. My first job out of college was as the social director for a private social club, which involved running the kitchens. I started cooking full meals when I was 8 years old. As the various food allergies and health problems hit my family I was the one everyone started turning to for help and advice. I’m a cook, it’s part of who I am. So keeping me out of the kitchen is pretty much impossible.
That being said, it turned out to be impossible to keep my children out of the kitchen too. Especially because if they need me that was were I will be. So, in a way it was no surprise that we found a 7-year-old VJ cutting bread at the kitchen table with a vegetable scraper. I had set her up there with her pens and ream of paper when I set up to cook that day. The vegetable scraper was new, and was still in the bag… sitting on the table next to a loaf of bread.
We soon realized that it was a sensory thing. She could control the knife just fine, it was the feeling of cutting through things that made her freak out. And she did freak out. She would make a small ‘cut’ with the butter knife or bowl scraper then suddenly drop it, wave it around while yelling, or throw it at someone (usually her baby sister). So the idea of giving her a real knife, or something heavy, like a vegetable scraper, was unthinkable.
But the vegetable scraper turned out to be exactly what she needed. She used it to cut bread, then cut sandwiches, and then soft fruit like bananas. We let her ‘cut’ almost anything she wanted with her vegetable scraper (under supervision). Then the day came that she found something she couldn’t cut with it. Steak had been her undoing.
A little secret here… we did it on purpose. She loves steak. So, after she’d had plenty of practice cutting other things with her vegetable scraper, we gave her the one thing she would want most that couldn’t be cut with a blunt “blade”.
At first she cried, and then pushed her plate over to me to cut it for her. I told her to cut her steak and pushed the plate back. Then she cried some more and pushed it over to her dad, who told her to cut her steak and pushed the plate back to her. Just when it looked like her cries were going to turn from attempts at manipulation to true tears my husband picked up his table knife, which had a slightly serrated edge, and said, “Oh, here, you’re going to need this.”
VJ accepted the table knife from her father and slowly turned in over in her hands, looking at it as if she’d just seen one for the first time in her life. She looked closely at the blade, and marveled at the serration. Then she watched carefully as her dad and I proceeded to cut pieces off of our steaks. With great care she turned her plate around and lined her blade up to cut against the grain of the meat, just like we were doing. Then, slowly, she sawed a piece off and stuck it in her mouth. When she looked up she had tears streaming down her cheeks.
For a moment I thought we’d gone too far, but then a big triumphant smile spread across her face and VJ cheered, “Didit!”
Her dad offered to cut the rest of her steak for her, but she wouldn’t have any of that! Slowly, methodically, she carved up the rest of her meal all be herself. That night the vegetable scraper was replaced by a table knife. Two years later a steak knife was added to her repertoire. A year later she was helping out in the kitchen with paring knives, various vegetable peelers, and instruments like apple corers. She started using a full sized kitchen knife when she was 14. Now, at 16, she’s slicing and dicing like the average young adult. She may never develop the knife skills of Gordon Ramsay, but then I don’t have he knife skills of Chef Ramsey either.
She can use a stove like nobody’s business. She’s the official flapjack fry cook in our house, and her eggs are to die for. The oven still makes her nervous.
But… we’re working on that.