Autism Speaks staffer Kerry Magro interviewed Jennifer Feuerbach, a freelance writer turned author of the book "Chef Philip has Autism." Jennifer is also a mother of three, two of whom are on the autism spectrum.
Thanks for talking with us today Jennifer! So, tell us a bit about your book "Chef Philip has Autism."
Chef Philip has Autism is a mostly true story about my son Philip’s first adventures in learning to cook. Philip is the youngest of three. He has an older brother with autism and a neurotypical and extremely busy older sister. Our household is very chaotic and the kids learned early on, despite all of our attempts at picture boards, that if you want something, it’s much faster to get it yourself. We taught him to make lemonade so that the sugar would last more than a day or two of his experiments.
Philip graduated to actual cooking through cheese sandwiches, which unfortunately didn’t fit in the book. He didn’t like that the cheese dripped over the edge when the sandwiches were microwaved, so he developed a system of rolling the cheese into a ball before putting it on the bread. After that he realized that cooking was about getting food the way you wanted it (making people smile came later). He was off. His specialty these days is little pizzas and he’s such a picky eater that he makes them at least three times a week for dinner.
When did you first find an interest in writing about autism?
Writing is something I’ve been doing since fifth grade and it’s become my profession, when I can get someone to pay me for it. The first story I wrote about autism was about my older son, Peter. I realized that as he was growing up into his tween years, his world had changed. He was no longer going from computer to hockey or school to swimming. Now he was going from Mom to Scott to Ms. Philips, etc. It wasn’t thing to thing, but person to person. The story I wrote was a picture book, however, and I haven’t found a publisher yet.
In the process of looking for one, I found Jason and Nordic Publishers, Inc. They publish books only about people with disabilities and I fell in love with several of them right away. Their heroes were people facing real every day challenges, just like Philip when he finds out that raw pizza dough doesn’t cook in the microwave. Norma, the editor, read endless versions of Chef Philip, helping me develop a story, not just a lovable character with adventures. Luckily, she is more stubborn than I am, and this wonderful book is the result.
Philip certainly seems to have a key interest in cooking. What advice would you give to parents of individuals with autism who are trying to help them find what they are interested in?
Be brave and be patient. Most discoveries happen when students are very comfortable, so it’s almost never in a structured learning session. I didn’t realize until I saw Philip decorate a cake that he was watching YouTube to learn. I thought the cakes themselves interested him. It was clear that he wasn’t stimming, though, because he would change videos and watch more than 30 seconds.
We had this same problem with my son Peter. He would constantly draw the same clown over and over again. The school considered this a stimulating activity and at the beginning, it probably was. But eventually he began to work in variations and the picture evolved until it was only recognizable by us. His breakthrough was using the computer; suddenly, he could erase without going through dozens of sheets of paper! Now he’s gained enough confidence to toy with all types of shapes and colors. Oddly enough, the clown went back to normal…
The best you can do is let the person with autism explore what THEY find interesting. This can be very frustrating when you paid $30 to get into the museum and they are interested in the front foyer. But you can’t tell what they are seeing; the railing may have a fascinating construction. Take them to places and do things things that don’t involve words, like walking the woods or rolling cookie dough or lying on a blanket and watching the clouds. Most of all, don’t talk for a bit. Listen to them. If they bother to pull a word out of their head, it is of EXTREME importance.
Finally, say what you truly observe, not what you guess. “Yes, I see a pot with dirt inside.” “Oo, the picture has lots of colors. I like this red one best.” “Oh wow, the cheese doesn’t drip over the side of the sandwich!” People on the spectrum, like everyone else, recognize flattery. If you say what you see, even if it’s not what they intend, you show respect to the person and their creation.
How has the book been received so far by your family and community? I'm sure they must have been thrilled when it came out.
My family likes it. They think the tantrums are a little understated, but you can only catch so much movement in a drawing. The community has been very supportive. I’m hoping to get to read it in schools and libraries next year.
One thing that makes the book different is that it is not about Philip’s autism exactly. It’s about him learning to cook and getting around his autism in the process. Everyone has tried to learn things where barriers have popped up, so it has a very universal appeal.
You can learn more about Jennifer and her book here.