06/15/2011 09:24 EDT | Updated 08/15/2011 05:12 EDT

Autism, Eating and... Television?

It's been very tough to watch my nephew's body reject tastes, smells and textures on its most basic level. But after watching Barefoot Contessa, Leo began to taste things here and there. Handling and smelling food opened up a whole new world to him.

My sister has always been a knockout of a cook. She loves to create things in the kitchen. In those early years of my nephew's autism diagnosis, it was one of her only creative outlets.

"Leo" has had a history of serious sensory issues surrounding food. It's been very tough to watch his body reject tastes, smells and textures on its most basic level. His diet consisted of little more than: strawberries, stick pretzels, green grapes and pizza.

A few years ago my sister started recording The Food Network's Barefoot Contessa every day, to inspire new recipes for family meals. Leo accidentally began to watch the show with interest and soon, if she let him control the remote, he would even allow her to watch it with him.

I remember how he used to hold his little hand up over his eyes to help process the visual information as it came barreling at him from the television screen. This was the beginning of his interest in food. The shows were visual, and predictable; a safe way to access the concept of eating which had up until this point been a monstrous idea.

After watching Barefoot Contessa, Leo began to become acquainted with Ina Garten's cookbooks. Soon, he and his mom began to cook things for the family. He loved making grocery lists and collecting ingredients.

My sister and he collaborated on every step of the process. She's extremely confident in the kitchen and so was naturally regulated without having to work at it. Leo started with the smallest of roles like "mixer" or "sprinkler" and increased incrementally.

As his confidence increased, he began to take ownership, and add his own ideas about the way things should be done. Handling and smelling food opened up a whole new world to him. This was definitely the longest part of the process; close to a year. His body was beginning to consume food through its other senses. Very slowly, he was breaking through. He would cook beautiful dinners for his family, and although he wouldn't eat it, he was very proud of his creation.

Gradually he began to taste things here and there. A piece of something that got stuck to his finger or fell off of a plate. I give my sister a lot of credit because she never rushed him, despite desperately wanting him to try new things. She didn't cheer, or make a big deal of it; she let him explore in his own time, and in his own way. Whether it was choosing a recipe, or deciding a weekly schedule of meals with his parents, he began to gain some competency and feel more in control of his eating habits.

While this was going on, my nephew started H.A.N.D.L.E. (a type of sensory integration therapy) and had been doing RDI for a few years. During his supplemental homework time, we talked about how the human body processes food. This gave him logical reasons (in a tangible way) as to why people were always telling him to eat healthy.

Now, at least two years later, Leo is starting to understand that there is a connection between what he is putting into his body and the performance response he can expect. This combined with his recent confidence with sports has become extremely motivating for him.

My nephew still has issues surrounding food. Further progress is in his parent's consciousness at every meal, every day. But when I look back on how far he's come, I am completely blown away.

He's decided he wants to be a chef when he grows up (a basketball-playing chef) and has an autographed picture of Ina Garten (the Barefoot Contessa herself) framed on his wall.

We go to my sister's house every week for a family dinner and she and Leo always have a beautiful meal prepared. It's a testament to how far he's come to sit and watch him cut mindfully into his "Indonesian Ginger Chicken" while my own kids sit behind a bowl of plain rice.

Sara Winter is a mom of two boys and the founder of