Autistic Students Regain their Appetites

Chef Lucio, changing lives one meal at a time

Chef Lucio, changing lives one meal at a time

Mealtimes can be difficult for people with autism. This was the case at Queensmill, a West London school for children on the autism spectrum. But, times have changed. Ever since Djalma Lucio Polli de Carbalho, a Brazilian chef who goes by the name of “Lucio,” joined as head chef, Queensmill’s students are regaining their appetite.

Indeed, the children are showing incredible progress at lunch time. Jude Ragan, the headteacher at Queensmill is delighted. “Tables used to be thrown over,”she says. “That’s stopped. Because the kids are eating, obviously they aren’t hungry which means the afternoons are better. The teachers feel properly cared for, which they deserve to be. But mostly we can just take pleasure in food. It’s a part of the day we all enjoy.”

Queensmill is composed of 140 students between 2 and 19 years of age. Most have trouble communicating and are non-verbal, using pictogram systems to show what they’d like to eat. Their relationship with food, however, is very complex.

Autistic people often experience a sensory overload when they approach food, as they may be hypersensitive to various temperatures and textures. Some seek a sensory hit and desire strong stimulants like crunch or heat. Others seek just the opposite and stick to warm or cool, bland foods. At times, depending on circumstances like quantity and quality of sleep, an autistic person may swing from one preference to the other.

Patterns are also very important for some autistic people; a small change in their daily routine can severely throw them off. This can be extremely stressful for the parents of autistic children. Evidently, Lucio’s cooking is turning things around. His food is made from scratch and a pleasure for everyone— even the staff at school. Ragan admits “the benefit he brings to us is incalculable.” He prepares everything from chicken with lemon and garlic to roasted butternut squash and sweet potatoes. His objective is to expand what the children eat to ultimately prepare them for an unpredictable and diverse future around food.

One mother recounts, “I was absolutely astonished when Matthew started eating. Since the new year, he’s eating things like curries that he would never have touched before. The fact is our children have very little control over their own lives and Lucio’s food has given them the opportunity to try things.”

Queensmill is thankful and grateful that Lucio joined their team. Their past year of delightful progress will hopefully inspire other schools to make changes in their kitchens for the children, their families, and their future.

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By Maude Plucker