The lunchtime revolution at a school for children with autism

School meals can be tricky. Now, thanks to a remarkable Brazilian chef, one west London school for children with autism has changed mealtimes for the better

In the dining room at Queensmill, a west London school for children with autism, spotting the truly extraordinary moments can be tricky. Matthew, for example, sits at a table wearing ear protectors in a dazzling shade of Day-Glo green, but there’s nothing extraordinary about that. They’re used to reduce the sensory inputs he might otherwise find overwhelming. Like a number of the kids here, he wears them every day. No, the really extraordinary thing is also the most banal: it’s the full plate of food in front of him, the one that he’s busy clearing. “This was a boy who was eating so little he’d become a cause for serious concern,” says Jude Ragan, headteacher of Queensmill. “It was all about how we could get him to eat three or four chickpeas. We worried about anorexia. Now look at him.”

The explanation for Matthew’s newfound enthusiasm for his lunch, and for what Ragan describes quite simply as a revolution in her school, is standing behind the counter at the other end of the plain white dining room. He’s a Brazilian man called Djalma Lucio Polli de Carvalho – Lucio for short – and he’s their chef. “I never used to look forward to lunch at school,” Ragan says. “Then Lucio arrived and now I do. He just makes us smile at lunchtime. The benefit he brings to us is incalculable.”

Related: I’m autistic. When you assess my needs, this is what you must know

The food is there for them. You have to be willing to let them look and leave

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