Seven children focused intently on the large, white mixing bowl their teacher placed on a square table, as the smell of melted butter wafted through the air.
The students at Pointers Run Elementary School in Howard County were making "melting moment" cookies, taking turns pouring ingredients into the bowl and stirring them into dough. They scooped heaping spoonfuls onto a cookie sheet that they put into the oven in the nearby teachers lounge.
Baking with a group of prekindergartners would give many grown-ups pause, particularly when many of the students have autism. But teacher Jane Berman is using cooking lessons as a developmental tool for her students, many of whom have significant delays in behavior, communication and social interaction.
"In the beginning of the year some of our kids cried all day," Berman said. "They didn't touch. We have really seen improvements with the kids. I've had two students who have come to me completely nonverbal and they are now talking."
The cooking instruction is a once-a-week activity in Berman's class, which is part of a Howard County public school initiative to acclimate children with autistic and learning disabilities to into a typical school setting. The program, called Multiple Intensive Needs Class - Early Learners (also known as MINC-EL), was launched as a pilot last year in four elementary schools and expanded to eight this year.
Sheri Lieber said her 5-year-old son, Ethan, has made great strides since coming to Pointers Run.
"His confidence has grown," the Clarksville resident said. "He has become more independent. He speaks."
The Howard school system's early-intervention offerings for autistic students are highly regarded in Maryland, said Kim Manning, executive director of the Howard County Autism Society.
"I'm sure that all of the counties have some sort of early-intervention programs, but this model is an example of best practices," Manning said. "They are cutting-edge."
Because of its educational programs, Howard County has become a magnet for families with autistic children. That contributes to one in every 100 children in the county having an autism diagnosis, compared with the national average of one in 150, said James Walsh, director of special education in the Howard County school system.
The MINC-EL program formed after a group of parents of autistic children raised concerns about the early educational offerings available in the school system, Walsh said.
"It was something we wanted to respond to," said Walsh, who formed a committee five years ago that crafted the program. "Early intervention is a key to absolute success."
The program integrates autistic children and nondisabled peers. The class prepares 4- and 5-year-old children for kindergarten, and serves 27 students countywide, who are joined by 20 peers.
Another program readies 2- through 5-year-olds for prekindergarten. Currently, 89 children are enrolled, along with 60 peers.
School officials are planning to extend the program to the kindergarten level next year.
In the early-learners program, the whole group spends the first three hours of the five-day-a-week class together. The peer students depart just before noon while the others stay for the rest of the day and work one-on-one with teachers.
Cooking is a favorite of the students at Pointers Run, Berman said. The activity entails several actions that benefit basic development, including learning to take turns, following directions, measuring, and identifying colors, smells and tastes.
Lieber said those have been important lessons for her son.
"It gives them inroads to the typical activities we do in the kitchen," she said. "It gets him involved in the day-to-day activities that most people take for granted."
The parents of the peer students also had praise for the program. Angela Freitag enrolled her 5-year-old daughter Natalie two years in a row.
"She has gained so much knowledge about all types of children," said Freitag, who also works as school's psychologist. "That is important. I think that she understands that we all have challenges, but we are all the same in the end."
One downside mentioned by the parent of a peer student is the fate of the food the children make.
"They almost never make it home to me," said Eric Jayne, whose daughter Ashley is in the class.
Berman said there is a waiting list for children to be peer students in the program.
As a former stay-at-home mother, Berman had plenty of experience to draw upon for incorporating cooking into her curriculum.
"Last year we dabbled," she said. "This year it became part of the program. The kids really love it."
The students have taken the venture a step further, compiling their favorite recipes in a 31-page cookbook that also features their artwork and that they have been selling for $5. So far, the class has sold more than 200 copies. They plan to donate the proceeds, which exceed $1,600, to the Howard County Autism Society next week.
"We've had three printings," Berman said.
Three recipes from a cookbook compiled by children in a Howard County school system program for autistic and learning-disabled students who take part in weekly cooking instruction.
3 1/2 sticks butter
1 cup powdered sugar
2 cups flour
2 cups corn flour
1 tsp. baking powder
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream butter and sugar until pale. Add other ingredients and mix well. Roll into balls, then press. Place on greased baking trays in rows. Bake for 20 minutes.
2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup butter
1 cup chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt butter in saucepan or microwave. Add sugar and stir until melted. Spread the mixture into a 13x9 baking pan. Top with chocolate chips. Bake for 10 minutes. Cut into bars when they are cool.
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1 bag of semisweet chocolate chips
1 tsp. vanilla
Melt the chocolate chips with the sweetened condensed milk in the microwave. Stir together until blended. Stir in vanilla. Pour into greased pan or mold and chill until set. Cut into squares.