SAIT helps students with autism cook up careers in the culinary arts

Low communication skills, difficulty with social interaction and behavioural challenges can make getting and holding a job a lifelong hurdle. But together, SAIT, The Ability Hub and the Society for Treatment of Autism are working to change that.
SAIT Polytechnic is helping four students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) gain a sense of independence and a chance at a career in a unique partnership with the Society for Treatment of Autism and The Ability Hub — an organization focused on improving the quality of life for those diagnosed with ASD.

“Approximately 70 per cent of young people diagnosed with ASD are higher functioning and with the right kind of support can become quite independent,” says Tom Collins, President of the Sinneave Family Foundation — funding partner of the Ability Hub. “And in our society, the ultimate expression of independence is to have a job.”

The students are learning to be prep cooks after it was determined that skill would be an excellent fit for those on the spectrum.“Industry has a shortage of prep cooks and students on the autism spectrum tend to like tasks that are planned and consistent, so we thought this would be a good match,” says Lynn McKenna, Student Services Coordinator with SAIT’s School of Hospitality and Tourism. “It’s fulfilling a need in industry and giving these students an opportunity to get into the workforce. There are benefits to both sides.”
Focusing on the idea of repetition and consistency, the curriculum was adapted from the culinary fundamentals course and the students started out with cooking basics such as knife skills and food safety. From there, they progressed to different cuts for vegetables, preparing stocks from scratch, making soup, pasta sauces, and salad and sandwich prep.

Student Josh Rosengarten, 23, says he really enjoys learning to cook, especially making chocolate-dipped strawberries and pineapple.“My favourite part about being a prep cook is you get to cook your favourite foods,” he says.

Chef Andreas Pabst and SAIT academic coach Vicki Miller have been with the students since the journey began and have discovered firsthand the broadness of the spectrum and how to work best with each student.“The biggest surprise to me is that when we started, we were told they have very limited interpersonal skills — that they don’t understand team work,” says Pabst. “But they’ve worked great as a team and they love it. They look out for each other, support each other and have started to encourage each other.”

Industry gets involved The experience for the students doesn’t end with the completion of their SAIT training this week. Chartwells and Montana’s jumped on board at the opportunity to employ the students beginning in September for a guaranteed eight-week placement.

Mo Aladin, President of Big Sky Hospitality — operating 11 Montana’s Cookhouse locations in Calgary and Edmonton — says he is excited to welcome these new employees. “We value hard work, loyalty and teamwork and we will provide the students with all the tools they need to succeed here,” says Aladin. “We are thrilled to partner with SAIT on this valuable program.”

SAIT, The Ability Hub, and the Society for Treatment of Autism are already in discussions to run the program again next summer. “Given the right support, they can do exceptionally well in many areas of the culinary industry. They need the right environment and the right support from management,” says Pabst.

Side bar with facts on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
• ASD is a developmental disability that impacts how a person understands what they see, hear or sense, creating significant social, communication and behavioural challenges
• One in every 68 babies born in North America will be diagnosed with ASD
• 70 per cent of young people diagnosed are higher functioning and with the right support can become fairly independent

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