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More than a Cookbook: The Autism-Friendly Cookbook by Lydia Wilkins

Disclaimer: The Autism-Friendly Cookbook was kindly sent to Marie to review, this has not influenced her views.

When I told someone I was reviewing this book, their first question was “how is a cookbook for autistic people different to a cookbook for neurotypical people?”. 

I had to admit that I honestly wasn’t sure. I know how my physical disability and ADHD affect me in the kitchen but being someone who didn’t realise they are autistic until recently, I hadn’t really thought about how my autism impacted my ability to follow a recipe and cook a meal. 

So I approached Lydia’s book hoping not only to discover some tasty food, but also hoping to learn more about my autistic self. 

I soon discovered Lydia’s book is more than a cookbook. 

Right at the beginning, in the preface, Lydia perfectly describes the paradox of being autistic: that we can simultaneously carry out hugely complex tasks but then struggle with the ‘ordinary’ things of life. 

This sets the tone for section one of the book, which is arguably more important than the recipe section (and probably could have been a book of its own). 

This extensive section is full of hints, tips, advice, and helpful information. Primarily aimed at autistic people, Lydia explains several key cooking concepts to aid in your cooking journey. No knowledge is assumed, but equally, there’s no hint of talking down to or patronising the reader. It’s a great reference section to refer to again and again along the way.

Lydia also deftly sprinkles in some advocacy and activism into this section. There’s valuable guidance for those supporting autistic people in the kitchen and Lydia does a fantastic job at explaining some of the barriers autistic people face when it comes to cooking. 

I identified with several of the things Lydia mentions, gifting me language to describe something I’ve struggled with all my life but never been able to explain before. Thank you, Lydia!

Section two is where we get to the recipes. This section is divided into four parts: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and baking/miscellaneous. Each recipe is laid out the same way, making them clear and easy to understand throughout the book. 

Every dish contains a rough time duration to make, an energy level and skill level required (both of which are explained in detail in section one) and ideas for when you might make it. Next comes an equipment list which I personally think should be standard in all cookbooks!

After the ingredients list comes a comprehensive method. The method starts by telling you everything you need to have chopped and prepared before you start cooking; as someone who naturally approaches cooking in this way, to not have to scour through the recipe for these prep steps is fantastic. 

From there a step-by-step method follows. What I thought was excellent about the methods is nothing is assumed; everything is explained but the reader isn’t patronised at all. The recipe writers tell you not only what to do but what piece of equipment to do it with and what will happen in terms of the appearance, texture, and smell to the ingredient you are using. 

Finally, each method is finished with ideas to expand the dish or alter it to suit your food sensory preferences.

Of course, I had to try the food! I want to preface this by saying that l am an experienced cook, who was privileged to receive an education in food as I was growing up. I also have ADHD, so I’m what the book would describe as “sensory seeking” when it comes to food. 

I opted to try dishes on the complex end of what the book had to offer and implement some of the “expanding your repertoire” suggestions at the end of the recipe.

The first recipe I tried was the Roasted Aubergine and Tomato Pasta (page 163). This involved chopping and roasting an assortment of veggies and blending them to make a sauce. I opted to add a carton of passata as suggested and topped the finished dish with cheese. 

I used gluten-free pasta and dairy-free cheese due to my allergies, so I’ll focus on the sauce which was delicious! It was smooth, had a consistent flavour, and went perfectly with my wholegrain gluten-free pasta. The recipe makes LOADS of sauce; I increased the pasta to feed two with leftovers and I still had about half the sauce left, so this is a recipe where your labour is rewarded. 

Next, I tried the Three Bean and Chorizo Chilli (page 267). This is a sensory seeker recipe, and I was intrigued about the inclusion of chorizo in a chilli.

Upon starting to cook, I realised it called for A LOT of spices, twelve tablespoons in total; the sheer volume of powdered spice would have been way too much for the dish, so I used teaspoons instead, which still made a flavoursome spice mix. 

The result was a tasty, wholesome, and comforting meal, with a warm smoky taste from the chorizo and paprika. Again, the recipe made loads, so whilst it’s a longer cook than many of the recipes, your labour is rewarded with lots of yummy leftovers.

The Autism Friendly Cookbook is a companion and guide for autistic people who want to gain confidence and independence in the kitchen. The comprehensive reference guides and clear and informative recipe layout are what sets this book apart from others, making it as accessible as possible to its target audience. 

Whilst I did sometimes wonder whether as an experienced and adventurous cook the food was aimed at me, the advice and advocacy Lydia peppers her book with helped me understand the difficulties my autism presents in the kitchen and gave me the language to explain to others. 

More than a cookbook, Lydia has produced a book that is an excellent educational tool, a model for accessible and inclusive cookbooks, and an important piece of advocacy for the autistic community.

Other authors could learn from this about how to make their own books more accessible to autistic and neurodivergent cooks.

The Autism Friendly Cookbook by Lydia Wilkins is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Waterstones.

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