My ability to speak disappeared shortly after it arrived. At age three, I was diagnosed with autism. Many years later, my family learned a more specific descriptor for my condition—minimally verbal autism with apraxia. Apraxia means my neural and motor systems are not well-aligned, so I struggle with fine motor skills and initiating actions. This means I have a brilliant, hopeful mind in a body that won’t listen to me. Many independent activities are a challenge. Speaking is particularly difficult because it requires intricate, coordinated movements of the mouth and vocal cords. For three decades, I was unable to physically express my thoughts and feelings beyond a handful of memorized phrases and uninhibited meltdowns and outbursts of glee. I had a rich universe inside me, but no way to share it.
For most of my life, no one suspected the sparkling capacity of my mind. Still, my family surrounded me with warmth and love. It was just the five of us in the U.S.: my parents, my sisters Tara and Eira, and me. We moved from Yokohama, Japan, to San Diego in 1989, seeking treatment for my autism. It wasn’t easy growing up misunderstood. Yet my childhood memories are full of radiance, especially the times I kept my mother company in the kitchen. I followed her to fetch fresh herbs and other gifts from the garden. She taught me to stir, pour, and slice. Though there were physical limitations to what I could do on my own, over the years, I mastered some basic tasks, like making a simple salad. And all through my quiet, limited participation, I was absorbing every detail—a kaleidoscopic array of ingredients and techniques that embodied my gastronomic world.
In my teens, I discovered I could explore this realm through food magazines. I was drawn to the rich and alluring pages of Bon Appétit and Food & Wine, the way other boys flocked to gaming or sports (or more racy) publications. My family assumed I was just feasting my eyes on the vibrant visuals. They didn’t realize I was studying these titles out of genuine culinary appreciation.
These magazines offered refuge from the reality of my daily struggles. In the “real” world, I’ve been ignored, mocked, or excluded from activities and opportunities I so desperately wanted to experience. I longed for a meaningful education, and friendships outside of my family, and the chance to make a difference in the world, but I had no way to make these wishes known, let alone the means to achieve them. I could, however, temporarily forget that sadness by disappearing into the pages of food magazines, filled with photos of glistening, golden roast chicken, perfectly chargrilled veggies, or sumptuously whipped buttercream piped atop fluffy cakes.
These magazines suggested more than primal nourishment. They represented spaces of community and joy, where I could belong. I fantasized about building my own community, and how we could enjoy my creations together. When we gathered, they’d be able to see through my cooking how much they meant to me.
I feel love so intensely, and it ached beyond measure that I couldn’t express myself in the way others do more freely. By the time I turned 20, I resigned myself to a stark reality: My desire to cook such feasts would have to stay trapped inside me, along with my words, and other far-off dreams.
Then, in 2015, I began practicing Spelling to Communicate (S2C)—a form of alternative communication. By pointing out letters and punctuation on a handheld letter board, I’m able to bypass the fine motor skill demands of speech. This requires a Communication Regulation Partner (CRP), who transcribes my words and keeps me focused. S2C was a revelation; my family could finally see that I was intelligent, bursting with ideas. But I didn’t have a full-time CRP until 2020, when my sister Tara moved home to fill that role. We practiced extensively during pandemic lockdown and quickly adopted a fluency. At 34 years old, for the first time, I could share my day-to-day needs, my jokes and musings, my feelings and dreams. I felt long-dormant parts of me reviving, like a barren and bleak wasteland transforming into an exuberant, lively garden.
A few months after this shift, I planned something bold: a feast for my mom’s birthday, with homemade fettuccine in a rich tartufo sauce—inspired by Miyoko Schinner’s The Homemade Vegan Pantry—and our family’s garden salad. I was so excited about my vision, and so boosted by my new ability to communicate; it didn’t occur to me how executing an elaborate meal remained a tremendous challenge for my motor system. I was swept up by the wave of possibilities unfurling before me. I was ready to blaze through every obstacle, to show to my family and myself I could indeed achieve all that had been locked away for so long.
That evening, I gathered my sisters as sous-chefs, instructed them to follow my directions, and donned an apron.
And then…I was stuck.
Where to start? I couldn’t sort through the ideas and impulses swirling in my mind. My fingers curled up. My heart pounded. The reality of my disability sunk in. How foolish I’d been, to think communication might somehow make my apraxia vanish. Noticing my distress, Tara gently took over, and the meal was saved. I tried to enjoy the salvaged feast, but I was crushed. For weeks, I cradled this disappointment tenderly, along with a lifetime of disappointments. It was a familiar habit by now.
So, making a meal independently would stay out of reach for now. But S2C continued to widen my world. With Tara’s patient guidance, we introduced my eager mind and body to new activities I’d never before dared to try: writing poetry and essays, or going snorkeling and stand-up paddle boarding. As my skills and confidence grew, and our partnership became second nature, I began to rethink my hopes of being a cook. What if Tara could be the motor skill wielder? She could translate my dreams into food!
We started with what I called Garden Soup. I’d been daydreaming of ways to celebrate our bounty of homegrown arugula with a fresh broth bursting with peppery arugula flavor, full of summer vegetables. When I suggested this new dish for dinner one night, Tara asked me where she could find the recipe. I exuberantly replied: “In my head!” Recipes come to me this way, through my mental catalogue of food I’ve enjoyed, the many permutations of ingredients rearranging in my mind.
I spelled out the instructions: this much onion, browned just barely; add some garlic, some nutritional yeast, some corn and bell pepper; add arugula later, to keep its lively bite sharp. As we cooked and tasted, she consulted me: More garlic? More depth? Is this how you want it? She high-fived me as I spelled out my chef-y responses with pride.
As dusk merged into night, my family gathered excitedly for dinner. I brought the stout yellow pot to the table and ladled out soup for everyone. We raised our bowls for a toast, and then I watched my family savor each spoonful, their smiles and eyes gleaming as we polished off the pot.
We all share the need for food, love, and self-expression. Cooking allows me to fulfill all three. My senses are so acute—a simultaneous glory and burden of my autism. And the years I’ve spent poring over food magazines has allowed me to studiously evaluate the food I eat. My palate can pick up so many subtleties in tone and depth and texture—a symphony of tastes that leaves my mind humming with wonder. It will always be difficult for me to do what I want in this life. But after more than 30 years living in silence, I am so in awe of what is, and what remains, possible.
For now, I am steadily building my repertoire of creations to share with my community. The most recent offering from Tara and me: a clove-orange-brandy olive oil cake served with a dollop of crème fraîche. The citrusy brightness, grounded in earthy notes, elicited appreciative eyebrow raises from my family. My family friends devoured their slices and clamored for the recipe. As Tara and I wrote down the steps, I could feel the rich universe inside me expanding, my own voice and words at last resounding beyond my body and heart and letter board, to somewhere new, full of hope and wonder.