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How Autism Makes Me a Baker in the Recipe of Life

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For as long as I can remember I’ve always loved baking and cooking. Some of my earliest memories are of being stood on a dining chair in the kitchen, as a toddler, helping my mum stir cake batter, or licking the bowl out after she’d make a sponge. She taught me that it was OK to cook, and make a mess — and how to clean up, but that what you took out of the oven a short time later would make all the hard work worthwhile.

Once I was into my teens, she taught me the skills of batch cooking, of creating meals from scratch so that in her words “When I had my own home to run, I’d be able to look after myself”. The meaning behind it was “when you get married,” but she didn’t want to say that out loud in case it scared me.

I was 33 when I finally left home, but she was so right. When I began my journey as a single woman, living in a rented flat — I was able to take care of myself and not rely on ready meals or takeaways to survive.

Fast forward another four years on, I’m 37 and finally in the situation my parents never thought would happen. Engaged to a man who means the world to me and running a home not just for one person, but two. Cooking meals, baking and looking after my partner is a pleasure and using the skills Mum taught me has been invaluable.

But a kitchen mishap the other week set a train of thought going. I’d baked a cake, nothing fancy or remarkable, to serve for dessert, but when I took it from the oven, it sank in the middle. It was silly, but I felt hugely shaken up by this. My cakes never sink. So why did this happen? What did I do that was so wrong that it collapsed? Sure, it was still edible, it just looked a mess.

Most people would just pass it off as a mishap and let it go. But my brain doesn’t work like that. I had to go through every stage of making the cake, looking at all the ingredients, to work out where I’d gone wrong. In the end, when I thought through the process, I remembered I’d forgotten to add in the half teaspoon of baking powder to the mix, which normally makes the cake rise properly… and that was probably the reason it sank.

Then it suddenly struck me. In the world of cooking, autistic people are the bakers, and neurotypicals are the soup makers (or stew, or salad…or whatever!)

Think about the two things separately.

In cooking, whether it’s a soup, a stew, or anything — you can follow a base recipe, but the rhythms of the cooking and ingredients mean there’s flexibility. You can adapt to suit tastes, your mood, how much time you have to cook and what you have in your store cupboards and fridge. If the recipe calls for two onions, but you only have one and a leek or a spring onion in the fridge, you can substitute. If you need 250 ml of red wine, but only have 200 ml, you can add stock, or water; it’ll still taste good.

In baking, it’s an exact science. If you’re making a cake, or bread, the recipe has to be slavishly followed. You can’t veer off and add in an extra few grams of flour, sugar or an extra egg because “you felt like it.” If you did that, the cake would turn out badly, it would sink, or not cook properly. You can’t suddenly change butter for dried fruit, or put a can of anchovies in with your chocolate cake mix. It would taste horrible, and no one would want to sit near you for the rest of the night. If the recipe calls for 100 g of flour, butter and sugar you need to put those exact weights in.

It’s the same with our brains.

A neurotypical person can veer off the straight and narrow; change isn’t quite so important. If in their recipe for life, they encounter hiccups along the way, it may not affect the outcome of their life stew so much. They just get on with it, adapt and hope everything turns out OK in the end.

An autistic person often can’t veer off their path. Change matters very much. If the mix is constantly altered in their recipe for life, then it stands to reason the cakes they bake won’t ever turn out exactly as they’d planned. And that can be a really upsetting and damaging experience to go through.

That’s why we, as people on the ASD spectrum, are the bakers in life.

Anyone for a slice of cake…?

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Thinkstock photo by Sergey Nazarov.

Originally published: September 20, 2017
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