What’s Cooking? Upholding Holiday Traditions and Building Skills

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

By Laura Noland, M.Ed., BCBA
The Bay School, an autism school of May Institute

Holiday traditions vary widely across families and cultures, but they often center around one common theme—food! Parents, providers, and teachers of individuals with autism and intellectual or developmental disabilities can utilize cooking activities to strengthen social communication skills during the holiday season. Listed below are ideas of skills that can be targeted:  

Requesting: During a meal preparation activity, you may find opportunities for your child, adolescent, or adult learner to ask for things they want in order to follow a step in a recipe. You can simply hold the item and wait for your learner to ask for it with whatever communication tools they have—a spoken word, sign, communication device, or simply a point or gesture. If the learner needs help making a communicative response, you can show them by providing a model. For example, if they reach for a spoon, you can hold the spoon and say the word “spoon.” When the learner says the word or makes any attempt to say the word, you can enthusiastically provide them with the spoon. Providing opportunities to request preferred items is an important way to build social communication. 

Commenting & Labeling: For some individuals with autism, it may be beneficial to practice making comments while preparing a meal. Again, this can be through spoken words, signs, or a communication device with programmed vocabulary. You can teach this skill by modeling various contextual comments. Here are some examples of things you can prompt your child, adolescent, or adult to say:

  • “This is sticky!”
  • “Yum!”
  • “I am mixing.”
  • “The batter is brown.”
  • “It smells good!” 
  • “That tastes spicy.” 

Direction Following: You can expand receptive language or “listener skills” by providing simple instructions while cooking. For some individuals, it may be appropriate to focus on a few single-step directions that can be repeated various times throughout the activity. For others, you may be able to increase complexity to multiple-step directions or instructions using expanded vocabulary. Offer any level of help that the learner needs to complete the task and provide praise and other meaningful rewards for doing so. Here are some examples: 

  • Hand me the (item) 
  • Find a fork (or other kitchen item)
  • Throw away 
  • Turn on the mixer

Fill-in-the-Blanks: Listening to music and singing often accompany holiday cooking activities. If your child, adolescent, or adult learner enjoys music, it may be appropriate to utilize “fill-in-the-blank” activities to practice this dimension of language. Sing a partial verse of a familiar song and pause, allowing an opportunity for your learner to complete the line. For example, you may sing, “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the…” and your learner can complete the verse by saying, “way!” Responding to fill-in-the-blanks is not only a fun social activity, but it also builds an important foundation for future conversational skills. 

Involving individuals with autism and intellectual or developmental disabilities in meal preparation activities during the holidays is a motivating way to support language development and build social connections. Moreover, it is an opportunity to create memories with your loved ones and strengthen your own family traditions. 

Laura Noland, M.Ed., BCBA, is the Director of Community Engagement and Development at The Bay School, a May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in Santa Cruz, Calif. She can be contacted at

About The Bay School
The Bay School, a May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in Santa Cruz, Calif., is a nonpublic, nonprofit school dedicated to providing education and intervention services to individuals with autism and their families. It is one of May Institute's five special education schools in Massachusetts and California for students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other special needs.