Dining out with kids on the autism spectrum requires preparation

Going out to dinner at a restaurant is an enjoyable and relaxing outing for families. After all, what parent doesn’t like a night off from cooking and doing dishes? But for many parents raising kids on the autism spectrum, dining out can be extremely challenging. Families must cope with stressful tantrums, picky eating, difficulties sitting still and waiting, and nasty stares from other diners.

However, there are some simple tips that parents can employ to make the experience successful—and even enjoyable for the entire family. The key to a successful outing is patience, forethought and preparation.


Do

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  • understand why meltdowns happen
  • practice eating out
  • give your server a heads-up
  • put thought into your seating choices
  • consider your child’s food preferences
Don't

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  • forget to pay attention
  • overlook the need to keep things moving
  • underestimate the importance of distractions
  • ignore the fact that some outings will be unsuccessful
  • believe you are to blame

Lucie P. Lawrence, PhD‘s recommendation to ExpertBeacon readers: Do

Do understand why meltdowns happen

Kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) tend to struggle with sights, sounds, smells and movements. They experience sensory overload, social anxiety and problems related to changes in routine. Consequently, a restaurant—stocked with loud noises, unfamiliar faces, new routines and strange smells—can create a recipe for disaster, which causes meltdowns and distress for many kids with ASD.

Do practice eating out

Begin by practicing in your own home. Rehearse the entire dining experience by reviewing the menu, ordering, waiting patiently for the food to arrive, sitting quietly in a chair and eating.

While you cook, have your child spend time in the kitchen with you. Turn on some music or the television while you eat. Invite friends or neighbors over to share meals with you. The more guests and chaos, the better.

Also visit fast food restaurants to practice your dining experience from beginning to end. And don’t forget to try using public restrooms with your child.

Use social stories, which are written or visual guides describing social interactions, situations, behaviors, skills or concepts. These stories describe situations in terms of relevant social cues, perspectives and common responses in a specific style and format.

The goal of a social story is to share accurate social information in a patient and reassuring manner that is easily understood by kids with ASD. The stories support individuals on the autism spectrum to better manage social situations.

Do give your server a heads-up

While this is not necessary, it can be very beneficial. By informing your server about your child’s specific needs, you will not only receive speedier service, but you can escape the restaurant in an easier manner and avoid having to explain difficult situations after they arise.

Do put thought into your seating choices

Ask to be seated away from other tables, especially those with large parties. Sit away from bathrooms and the kitchen to reduce your exposure to any restaurant traffic. Try to seat your child in the corner with his/her back to traffic to minimize disruption from others. A high-backed booth is helpful to block your child’s exit.

Whenever possible, try to sit outside in the patio section. These areas are typically less noisy, stimulating and crowded.

Do consider your child’s food preferences

Many kids with ASD are picky eaters. Some have severe food allergies, such as peanuts or eggs. Others follow a strict gluten-free casein-free diet, which many families believe can improve behavior and digestion for kids with ASD.

However, many restaurants can’t accommodate these dietary restrictions. As a result, parents must bring their own food or tweak options from the menu. Be sure to review menus before selecting a restaurant to be sure they offer food items your child will eat.


Lucie P. Lawrence, PhD‘s professional advice to ExpertBeacon readers: Don't

Do not forget to pay attention

Keep you eyes on your child at all times. It is not uncommon for a child on the autism spectrum to wander away from your table or attempt to swipe some food off a neighboring table.

Additionally, be on the lookout for any signs of a meltdown. These can include rapid eye blinking, fidgeting, flapping hands or screaming.

Do not overlook the need to keep things moving

If your child gets hungry quickly, immediately order an appetizer or a side dish as soon as you are seated. This snack will raise his/her blood sugar level and prevent his/her behavior from becoming irrational and aggressive.

When your server comes back to your table to take drink orders, be ready to give your meal order to decrease the wait time.

Because many kids with ASD have receptive language delays, they do not always grasp the concept of patiently waiting. As a result, try to break the wait time into small, manageable pieces. Assign a task to each segment, such as singing a song, coloring a picture, taking a trip to the bathroom and walking around the parking lot.

Having an escape route is sometimes a necessity. Be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice by taking your meal to go or taking your child out to the car.

Additionally, consider eating dinner before 6 pm when restaurants are not very crowded. Give the server your credit card immediately after placing your order in case you need to leave abruptly.

Do not underestimate the importance of distractions

Consider restaurants that offer televisions sets. For example, sports-themed restaurants or kid-focused sites typically provide TVs in each section of the restaurant.

Allow your child to bring things to keep him/her distracted, such as iPads, toys, books, handheld video games, coloring books, portable DVD players and small CD players.

Do not ignore the fact that some outings will be unsuccessful

Prepare yourself for some unsuccessful meals but think of these as “practice” runs. After each experience, you will learn something new to implement in your next practice run. It is important not to stress about these dining experiences. Don’t force them to happen and make everyone miserable every time.

However, also be aware that not every child can learn to manage eating out in a restaurant. If this is the case, hire a respite provider or babysitter to watch your child while you enjoy a meal out. Or consider staying in and ordering takeout as a compromise.

Do not believe you are to blame

The important thing to keep in mind is that you have no reason to feel embarrassed or shameful if your dining experience goes south. Kids with ASD genuinely feel uncomfortable, over-stimulated and fearful. It has nothing to do with bad parenting or a lack of discipline, which is what many others believe.

While it is understandable to feel bad for disturbing fellow diners or creating more work for the restaurant staff/management, there is never any reason to feel like an irresponsible or bad parent. Have faith in your efforts.


Summary

Being out in public with a child on the autism spectrum can be difficult. Not only are there judgmental stares from others and uncomfortable situations, but being confined to a restaurant table means there is not always an easy escape.

Consequently, some families don’t even bother going out to eat. But you should never feel confined to your home. You can still take part in the activities that you have always enjoyed and looked forward to. It just takes flexibility, perseverance, patience and a lot of prep work.

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