Ever since my seven-year-old autistic son, Barclay, was able to stand on a chair and reach the counter, I’ve had him in the kitchen with me. He loves to collect the tools needed for whatever dish we are whipping up. He then selects the ingredients and places them on the counter in the order in which they’ll be used. He can crack an egg like a pro and is getting pretty decent with a mixer. All of the above come in very handy when we are making his favorite dish—red velvet cake. Yesterday when we were, you guessed it, making red velvet cake, I realized I’ve learned several lessons in our cooking sessions that I want to share!
Scene 1: A Big Move and a Big Let Down
We recently moved from central Florida to the Tampa Bay area. For anyone, moving can be overwhelming, but for an autistic individual, that anxiety is heightened to the max. To cling to something familiar, Barclay asked if we could make a red velvet cake on move-in day. I wanted him to immediately feel at home in our new place, so I agreed. Big Mistake. While I made sure I had all the ingredients easily accessible, an unforeseen kink would derail our plan. Shortly after we got to our new home, the movers arrived and delivered what seemed like 500 boxes. About half they’d labeled “kit” meaning “kitchen.” That’s it. Not what was inside, just “kit.” Panic hit me when I realized I’d have no way of knowing which box contained the baking pans. We had furniture to put together and beds to make. I’d barely have time to go through half of those boxes. I tore through as many as humanly possible, but by day’s end, no baking pans and no red velvet cake. Just an exhausted mom and a disappointed little boy.
Lesson 1: On big days, focus on small things.
Agreeing to bake a red velvet cake in the middle of moving was probably a bad idea! Just like I’m sure you regret last Christmas trying to build your son’s 7,956-piece Lego Millenium Falcon in the middle of holiday mayhem. In hindsight, I would have told Barclay we’d make a red velvet cake on day two, and we’d pick something else familiar and SIMPLE for day one, such as quickly setting up his Switch or making sure his favorite toys were easily accessible.
Scene 2: A Warm Heart and a Cold Oven
The next week it was time for red velvet cake again. We’d found the baking pans, and most of our life was unpacked and settled into our new home. Barclay decked himself out in his apron and chef’s hat, and I preheated the oven. He dumped the cake powder into the bowl, added all the ingredients, blended the mixture, and poured it into the baking pan. But when we opened the oven, it wasn’t warm. We tried troubleshooting. Nothing. Eventually, we found out the service had been cut-off. In the middle of selling and packing, and moving, we overlooked contacting the gas company to put the service in our name. Now a useless runny red mixture sat in a pan, and no cake could be baked.
Lesson 2: Slow down. Make sure step one worked before you jump to step two.
Had I checked to confirm the oven was heating FIRST, we’d not wasted our time and the cake ingredients. My husband always says, “You do everything too fast.” And he’s not wrong. But something as simple as checking the oven is working, calling ahead to make sure where you promised you’d take your child to eat lunch is actually open, or checking the weather before heading to the beach, these things can have big impact on your child’s day and yours.
Scene 3: Lights, Camera, Action
Yesterday it was red velvet cake-making time again! I expected this time everything would be perfect. Typically, when Barclay makes red velvet cake, he sets up an iPad on a tripod and pretends he’s recording a cooking video. With the shot perfectly framed, he cracked, mixed, and poured. Then, to his surprise, he realized he’d not hit the record button. There was no way to unmix the ingredients, and he was visibly upset. He yanked off his hat and apron and threw them down. Crying, he stormed to his room and slammed the door. Routines are so important for him, and I felt terrible. I waited for a bit, then knocked on his door and asked if he wanted me to finish making it. I told him that we’d make one next week, and I’d be the camera operator. After he calmed down, he helped me do the dishes while dad frosted the cake.
Lesson 3: Delegate. Delegate. Delegate.
Being a chef, a show host, and a camera operator is a lot of jobs for one little guy. It would be a lot for anyone. I think as parents, especially as special needs parents, we often take on too many roles. We don’t think anyone else can do XYZ as well as we can. And maybe they can’t. And maybe that’s okay! So while the mixing bowl Barclay washed may have still had some red streaks down the side, he got to help. I recently broke my foot and hired someone to clean for me once a month while I heal. I also can’t drive to the grocery store, so I’m forced to let dad do all the shopping. It has really reminded me how important delegating is. If you try to do it all, you’ll miss something.
Barclay and I already have plans to make another red velvet cake next week. You can bet; I’ll make sure I know where the baking pan is, double-check the oven is heating, and be sure I hit that record button. I never knew I could learn so many life lessons baking red velvet cakes with my son!
While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about.