Brownie pizza was the featured entree at a recent cooking club meeting in Burlington County.
Four tiny chefs scrambled around the kitchen in the Medford community center, grating their white chocolate "cheese" and taking a quick break for "pin the pepperoni on the pizza."
Brownie pizza may not be the most essential recipe for a 9-year-old to master, but Rosy Gruber says the cooking is secondary for her son, Jason.
"I tell people he's going to a cooking class and they think, 'Oh, he's learning to cook.' No, he's learning to be a competent human being," she said.
The class is part of a program organized by KidsAhead Consulting & Center for Development, which works with autistic children and their families to foster emotional development and basic life skills. KidsAhead offers consultations and parent education, with supplemental summer programs such as the cooking club, a crafts club, and a summer camp.
KidsAhead approaches autism using Relationship Development Intervention. Instead of an approach that focuses on reinforcing or discouraging specific behaviors, RDI takes a more general approach to education in the hope that children will learn to apply patterns of behavior to different situations.
KidsAhead's RDI programming focuses on strengthening the "core deficits" that most autistic children struggle with, such as problem solving and emotional development. Though the cooking club is not officially an RDI program, Gruber said cooking is a good way to start because it can improve an autistic child's "flexible thinking."
"Some kids, for example, if they bake cookies the first time, then every time they bake they think it has to be cookies, it always has to be the same bowl," she said.
She also said the social aspect has helped Jason, who has always struggled with making friends. She said Jason had gotten especially attached to a 10-year-old with Down syndrome who was sporting a bright green polka-dot apron as she meticulously arranged her pizza.
"I was like, 'So, do you like Annie?' He said, 'I love Annie.' . . . He said, 'I like all the kids in cooking club,' " said Gruber.
Because Jason struggles with anxiety and panic attacks, he has not been able to attend school. So Gruber and Jason have been together all day, every day, for almost 10 years. She said his autism was so severe that he was nonverbal for the first four or five years of his life, and they had to communicate with sign language.
"Before, he used to be very withdrawn, introverted. He's more part of the family, he's more social. Definitively much more talkative," she said.
Founder and director Libby Majewski says KidsAhead, which has about 30 clients, tries "to give parenting back to the parents."
"What has been really great to see is that we have many parents who now say that they have a relationship with their child," she said.
Gruber says KidsAhead has been especially helpful for Jason because its programming takes into account his struggles with anxiety and panic. Still, she said, Jason will always have to deal with his autism.
"We're not looking for a cure," she said. "There is no cure. We're looking for remediation."