I’ve been using the same butter cake recipe for years. It’s one I created when my eldest child Philip was diagnosed with severe food allergies to egg and tree nuts. Instead of egg I use baking powder and it is a little denser than the egg variety, like halfway between a sponge cake and a mud cake, but we love it.
Butter cake is so versatile. We use it for cupcakes, pineapple upside down cakes, donuts in our donut maker and you can use it for trifle or tiramisu.
Or in the case of my younger son, Giovanni, it can be used as therapy.
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Giovanni has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) level 2 which can be a little trickier than the ASD level 1 that Philip has been diagnosed with.
For Giovanni, that trickiness comes in many forms including food aversions.
Food aversions for autistic people, as I understand them, are about hypersensitivity to textures although it seems a little more complicated than that for Giovanni. He experiences food aversions when foods come in different shapes or the packaging has been changed.
He’ll reject a meal because it is a little overcooked or a little undercooked, especially toast.
To civilians, this can seem like fussiness.
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“Just let him starve, he’ll eat eventually,” some say.
Except they won’t, and there are many children with autism who are hospitalised and given nutrition in other ways when they have stopped eating enough and thankfully, Giovanni isn’t a skinny, overactive autistic. He has a larger body, low muscle tone and is underactive, which means when we hit a food snag it isn’t life threatening.
It is, however, perplexing.
When Giovanni was younger we paid approximately $4,000 for ‘food therapy’ at an occupational therapist. It was the first time they had offered the program, and you could tell. The foods they offered to the kids didn’t look appealing at all. But once again, the greatest benefit of the therapy was what I learned by watching it unfold.
As Giovanni would get up from his seat and run around the table, unable to sit still a second longer, I’d listen to how the therapists discussed the food.
The goal wasn’t for the kids to eat everything given to them, but to introduce them to new textures and tastes and smells. During one session they were given a cheese stick. The first thing they did was smell it. They then discussed the smell. Next they felt it and squished it and talked about that. Then, if they wanted to, they’d take a bite.
After the therapy was over I began using what I had learned at home, inviting Giovanni to smell and touch different foods, watermelon as I cut it, rice I had cooked, ham I was about to use in a sandwich.
He once licked a watermelon but that’s as far as I got when it came to trying to get him to eat new foods. I once offered him $10 to try and strawberry and after 30 minutes of staring at it, he burst out crying. I gave him the money anyway.
Then I heard about a couple of different methods. One involves placing the new food next to foods he was already happy to eat.
He’d sometimes smell and touch the food but never eat it.
“He once licked a watermelon but that’s as far as I got when it came to trying to get him to eat new foods.”
The other method I heard about was taking the exact same ingredients I used to create dishes Giovanni was happy to eat and make something different out of it, but Giovanni would have to participate in the process.
He began helping me make his favourite spaghetti and meatballs and the meatballs he rolled were perfectly round, unlike my rushed, bumpy, oval efforts. Once familiar, we used the same ingredients to make lasagne, which he now eats.
Now, back to the butter cake.
Giovanni is happy to eat my cupcakes most of the time, preferring them plain. He’d help me make the butter cream icing but it took months for him to try it. The key to him trying new foods in these circumstances aside for helping me make them is feeling zero pressure from me.
The first time he tried the icing I think it was because it got on his finger accidentally and instead of furiously wiping it off as he usually did, he licked it off.
From then on he would add icing to his cupcakes, usually blue or green. We’ve also tried making them in different sizes.
Now that he is comfortable with all of that I thought we’d try using those same ingredients to make a cake, because his birthday is this week and it would be amazing if he actually ate a piece of his birthday cake. He is turning 14 after all.
So we made his usual cupcakes in both sizes he was used to, with the blue and green icing he likes, and we used some of the batter to make a cake.
Once the cake was cooked, we decorated it with buttercream icing.
‘Giovanni had already eaten some of the cupcakes so I thought he’d be too full to try the cake but he had learned it was made from the exact same ingredients in his cupcakes.
So I got out sugar silver ball decorations and as we carefully placed them around the heart we had drawn on the top of the cake, I casually mentioned they were made out of pure sugar, and without hesitating he popped one in his mouth and said, ‘Oh yeah!’ And had several more.
It’s all important progress because ideally Giovanni will train his brain to try new foods to a point where we can then attempt to improve his diet.
He eats a lot of chewy and crunchy textures in the form of carbs. Sometimes he’ll eat a banana.
I’m not sure if he’ll ever be a fruit and vegetable lover but if he gets to a point where he can have a bite of them here and there by the time he is fully grown I’ll feel a bit better.
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