Lunch box snack bars

It's been four years since Liam Bogner was diagnosed with profound autism. He is non-verbal and possibly also mentally retarded, his mother Audrey Todd explained. Liam is now 6 and his mother measures his progress using the gluten-free blueberry muffins they make together.

"You plan ahead, framing what is going to be the child's role and what is going to be the parent's role," Todd explained as she lined up a series of small cups into which the ingredients for the muffins had already been placed.

"We use regular, home-based chores, breaking them down into steps and gradually add the more messy components," Todd said before bringing Liam into the kitchen. "A lot of people with autism have problems with rigidity, and cooking is a great tool for teaching them dynamic, real-world intelligence."

It's no surprise to find out that Todd is a psychologist who specializes in Relationship Development Intervention, a form of autism therapy. And earlier this year she and her husband Scott Bogner opened Food for Good Thought, a Clintonville bakery, which produces the gluten-free and casein-free foods favored by many people with autism.

Both gluten and casein are types of proteins, found most often in wheat and cow's milk respectively, and they can exacerbate the gastro-intestinal problems that many people with autism have.

The blueberry muffin recipe is one Todd has been making with Liam for a few years now. She modified it from the "Gluten-Free Baking Classes" cookbook by Annalise G. Roberts, and the mother-and-son process is fascinating to watch.

Todd would start a movement as simple as turning a page in the recipe book which has each step of the recipe broken into a single sentence with a picture. She'll turn the page halfway, then wait for Liam to take over the movement and finish turning the page.

"I use a lot of my own actions to give him the cue to perform his role," Todd explained. Before adding each ingredient, she asked Liam if they had picked up the correct ingredient or would hold up small bowl filled with their rice-blend version of flour or xanthan gum (used as a binder in the recipe) and then wait for Liam to take and pour it into the mixing bowl.

"Do you think you should stir or should I?" Todd asked Liam at one point. Liam firmly set his right hand on her left shoulder, looked at his mother and nodded at her to stir. It was a significant bit of communication that, four years ago, wouldn't have been possible for the little boy.

"We say that we unveil our own thought processes to help teach them to think," Todd said of their slow and careful approach to cooking together. "This is just like real deliberate parenting."