Mothers and daughters have connected over food for generations, but that wasn’t the reason that Arlene Maidman took her daughter, Julia, to cooking lessons four years ago. Family friends had gifted the lessons to Julia for her sweet 16, and Arlene just went along. But what she saw in Julia that afternoon changed both of their lives.

“There was such pride in her when she served us that lunch and sat down to eat it with us,” recalled Arlene, “I saw that she was taken by this and booked more lessons immediately.”

Those lessons have more than paid off. Now 20-years-old, Julia not only plans and prepares meals with her mother twice a week, she also loves to bake. Together, she and her mom started Julia’s Cookies to raise money for autism programs, including for NEXT for AUTISM. Such a full circle moment – in which a daughter, who is on the spectrum, can prepare some of the meals that her mother once had – has been an unexpected (and welcome) surprise for Arlene.

“If I were to look at her at two, I would have never thought that she would be where she is now.”

“When I first saw her in class with a sharp knife and a chef’s blow torch, I had to turn around and leave the kitchen,” said Arlene.

“But I’m glad I didn’t make Julia leave, because cooking has given her so much joy and meaning. She’s a sweet, sweet girl, and now she expresses her sweetness through cooking and baking birthday cakes and cookies for the kids in her school. She’s made a wonderful friend in her cooking teacher, Tarek.”

Julia also adores planning menus.  Each Sunday night, she and Arlene sit together and plan two meals for the week.  They’ll discuss recipes, make shopping lists, and plan the cooking – all important skills for Julia to practice as a young adult with autism. Once a picky eater, Julia now has a sophisticated palate and wants to taste everything. She’s excited to think about what she calls her “nibbles” and according to Arlene, she’s consistently on the mark about spices to add and food parings. If Julia says it will taste good, it always does!

Getting here took the arduous work that’s familiar to many families and young people living with autism. Julia didn’t speak until she was six years-old. Though she was a sweet child, she was largely unhappy, often sitting on the floor and screaming for hours out of frustration.

“To be as smart as she was and yet bottled up in this world of hers was devastating,” recalled Arlene. Through a disciplined therapy, which at times was hard for Arlene to implement and watch, Julia learned to read and write, which in her case, broke her silence. She became the pure, sweet, loving person that she is today.

“If I were to look at her at two, I would have never thought that she would be where she is now,” said Arlene, who credited Julia for teaching her the wisdom to be a mother. As difficult as it was to watch a child with autism struggle, Arlene knew she had to persevere for Julia’s and her family’s sakes. She also knew that she couldn’t have done it without Julia’s hard work and the support of family, friends, and teachers, whose love was deeply felt by Julia.

Arlene doesn’t know what the future holds for Julia. But as a mother, she’s learned that taking baby steps and trusting in Julia’s positive attributes and her love of life, will get them to the right place.

Share your own story about a loved one with autism whose hobby has transformed them. Write us at Subject Line: Unlocking Potential