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Torfaen School Catering offers autism-friendly school meals service

7th Jun 2022 - 04:00
Torfaen School Catering, which won the Innovation Award at the Public Sector Catering Awards, prides itself on ‘going that extra mile’ for pupils requiring diets other than the standard menu.

So when the team found out that school meals were a source of great worry for some parents of pupils with a diagnosis of autism, they wanted to be sure that they were doing all they could to support these pupils.

April is World Autism Awareness Month, so in preparation for this year’s event, the Torfaen team worked with key partners to ensure they were meeting the challenges of catering for all pupils with a diagnosis. They then set out for pupils, and their parents, what they can expect when participating in school meals.

Autism is known to affect pupils’ eating and drinking in many different ways. However, the most common concern in Torfaen has consistently been that of selective or restrictive eating. An initial meeting was arranged with the local authority Children and Young Persons Autism Officer, which threw up lots of suggestions as to what the team could be doing.

Although some adjustments had already been made, they were not formally documented anywhere, and were reliant upon a referral to the team from the pupil’s dietitian. There was a real risk that parents were not aware that they could access these adjustments, or exactly how they could access them. It’s also the case that not every pupil with autism is under a dietitian.

On the advice of the local autism officer the catering team considered all aspects of accessing meals, what adjustments could be offered, and a formal policy was drafted, setting out for pupils (and their parents) what they can expect when participating in school meals. It is now highlighted on the school website.

Among the changes made to the ‘eating environment’ were meal presentation (eg. foods not touching); repetitive menus offered where required; widened food choices beyond the standard menu; and avoiding unexpected changes to the menu etc.

Integral to the success of these arrangements was ensuring that all catering staff were trained in Autism Awareness and had an understanding to be able to reduce anxieties around school mealtimes.

A programme of training was organised by Welsh Government’s National Autism Team that was rolled out to over 150 catering staff. As a result the Torfaen School Catering team recently gained the status of ‘Autism Aware Organisation’.

Susan Manning, parent of a pupil who accesses the policy, said: “I think this is an amazing policy. You have always done your very best for Deri and I think you guys are great. Deri is doing amazingly, he loves comp, and the catering are giving him little extra things to try now and again. He’s enjoying exploring the range of puddings especially.”

Written by
Edward Waddell