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Virtual cooking class offers sensory enrichment therapy for people on autism spectrum

The chefs in training learn to enjoy more tastes, textures and smells of food, while gaining life skills at the same time.

PHOENIX — Some children with autism can face a lot of challenges when finding different foods to eat, according to research. So a group in the Valley is trying to change that.

Together they’re helping people with autism develop an appetite for new tastes and more.

Ethan Melville is all Arizona, loving Sparky, Howler, and swimming. But when it comes to eating or even sharing the dinner table with his family, it can be tough. 

“It has always been with him, challenging," Ethan's mom, Nicole Melville said. "Food is just a challenge. We can’t go to places with strong smells.”

Ethan has autism and his mom says he’s taken all kinds of feeding therapies. Still, his menu item of choice is simple. 

“We call him a 'pizzatarian,' cheese pizza only," Melville said. 

According to a publication in the National Center for Biotechnology Information, sensory processing impairments can be extremely common in children on the autism spectrum. 

So when Ethan and his mom found out about “Sensory Cooking,” Ethan hit the kitchen. 

“It’s all about the smells and colors," Melville said.

Katherine Murwin shared their group with us on Nextdoor. Murwin and a partner host the small groups of children and adults on the spectrum through Zoom because of COVID-19.

While a few immediate goals are to help the groups of chefs in training become comfortable with more tastes, textures and smells, Murwin says it goes beyond that.

“The goal ultimately is independence," Murwin said. "So eventually what we’re hoping is that these kiddos will be able to virtually shop online or go to the grocery store, look at a recipe, create a list.”

After only a few classes, Nicole has watched her son transform.

“He eats dinner in the other room and it often makes him feel left out or singled out and this has been a way that he’s just been able to be involved with dinner and family dinner," she said. 

Murwin has posted a bunch of videos from her classes online.

Anyone who’s interested can check them out and maybe even find a tasty new recipe to try in their own kitchen.