Food

The remarkable way one mom finally connected with her autistic son

For years, Philadelphia-area mother Erica Daniels tried everything — sports, therapies, play dates — to communicate with her autistic son, Leo. Desperate to connect with him, she finally found a way — in the kitchen.

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The remarkable way one mom finally connected with her autistic son

Play Video - 0:58

The remarkable way one mom finally connected with her autistic son

Play Video - 0:58
Courtesy of Erica Daniels
Cookbook author Erica Daniels with her son, Leo, in their Philadelphia-area home.

Doctors diagnosed Leo, now 11, with autism at 21 months. The once-bubbly baby suddenly withdrew, often sitting in his high chair and staring out the window for lengths of time, Daniels told TODAY Food.

On top of the many other social, physical and academic challenges many autistic kids face, Leo also suffers from severe food allergies and gastro-intestinal problems, which are relatively common among his autistic peers, Daniels says. (A 2014 meta-analysis in the journal Pediatrics showed that gastro-intestinal disorders are four times more prevalent in autistic children.)

So, Daniels, a single parent, spent untold hours coming up with meals Leo could eat, with him often at her side.

Then, it dawned on her: "The kitchen is where you'd see him shine."

Ed Cunicelli / Skyhorse Publishing
Philadelphia mom Erica Daniels found a way to connect with her autistic son, Leo, 11, in the kitchen. "Baking is his absolute favorite," she says.

Soon, Leo started doing things on his own: taking ingredients out, trying his best to crack eggs. "I would turn around and say, 'Do you want to make a cake, is that what you're trying to tell me?' " Daniels says. "It was just natural. It was where I was spending a lot of my time, and I guess he wanted to be with me."

Fortunately, Leo's sister, Scarlett, 9, is a foodie, too: "She’s really close with her brother, and cooking is something they can do together," Daniels says. "Food is such a strong family tradition for us, his happy place became sitting around the dinner table with all his 'people.' "

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After becoming something of a mentor among fellow parents of autistic children, Daniels spent a lot of time gathering and sharing the recipes she found that avoided many common allergens.

"I became overwhelmed. I needed to put the recipes in one place," she says. Then, someone suggested she write a cookbook, and "a lightbulb went off," she says.

Skyhorse Publishing
"Cooking with Leo: An Allergen-Free Autism Family Cookbook" is in available online and in bookstores now.

From there, her new book, “Cooking with Leo: An Allergen-free Family Cookbook,” was born. “Cooking with Leo” isn’t just any new cookbook: It’s the story of a mom desperate to connect with her autistic son, and finally finding a way — through food.

Every single recipe in the book avoids gluten, wheat, dairy, casein (a dairy protein), soy, tree nuts, peanuts, fish, shellfish and sesame — no easy feat. (Eggs, a common allergen, are included, as Leo is not allergic to them, but Daniels offers substitutes.)

RELATED: Have kids with food allergies? Read this.

All the recipes are kid-friendly, of course, earning Leo's stamp of approval. His top dishes: Grandma's Beef Stew and Pineapple Spoon Bread. "He loves to bake — any baking recipes are his favorite," his mom says.

The publisher behind the book, Skyhorse Publishing, is donating 25 percent of proceeds to Hope4Leo, a nonprofit organization that drives research for autism treatment.

Courtesy of Erica Daniels
Leo and his sister, Scarlett, bond over exotic fruit (that's "Buddha's hand," by the way) in the produce aisle.

Hope4Leo also funds scholarships for siblings of autistic children. "Often, siblings with needs get all the resources in a family," Daniels explains. The scholarship fund helps siblings participate in extracurricular activities, such as dance and sports, which the family may not have extra money for otherwise.

So does Daniels envision a future for Leo in a professional kitchen one day?

"I hope so — yes," she says, noting that she is cautiously optimistic due to the severity of Leo's autism, which affects his motor skills.

"My number-one hope is happiness," she says. "Hope that he is able to do something that not only brings some independence, but in a way that he can contribute to the world and feel some happiness."

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