As parents of autistic children, our lives changed when our child was diagnosed. Before, going out to eat at a sit-down restaurant was a simple process, but now you are overwhelmed with the idea of taking your family out for a meal. You worry that the change of routine and the loud noises may overstimulate your child, or they may grow impatient or refuse to eat. What was once just an occasional pleasure is now riddled with stress and anxiety. However, it doesn’t have to be. There are certain steps you can take to prepare your child to experience eating at restaurants so you can all enjoy a new experience together. Here are our tips for dealing with autism while dining out:
Practice makes perfect
There are certain skills involved in going to a restaurant that you should practice with your child before actually going out. For example, children must learn to order food, wait for it to arrive, sit patiently, and practice good table manners. Before you go out, prepare your child mentally by practicing at home first. Turn a family dinner into a restaurant practice run by creating a menu and walking your child through all the steps of ordering food, waiting quietly at the table, and staying still in their seat. You could practice further by taking your child to a fast food establishment first and rehearse.
Once you and your child have practiced restaurant skills, you are now ready to prepare for the experience. Choose a restaurant that will offer you speedy service, and choose a time that will not be outrageously busy as to avoid over stimulating your child. Pick a restaurant where you know they serve food your child will eat, and consider picking out your meal from the menu online beforehand to speed up the process. You may consider making a reservation in order to avoid waiting for a table.
Make sure your child knows what the plans are so they can be mentally prepared. Bring along books, toys, or games to entertain your child while waiting for food. You may want to bring snacks along as well, just in case. Be sure to use the restroom at home before leaving for the restaurant in order to avoid the public restroom, particularly if your child is averse to toilets.
At the restaurant
When you arrive at the restaurant, ask for a table that is away from other tables if possible. A booth is a good option to help your child sit still and have greater privacy. When you get to your table, you may want to let your server know your child has special needs. This could help them understand why your child is unresponsive, and may speed up service. Ask for the check as soon as you get your entree to ensure that you won’t have to wait around after you are finished eating.
Sometimes, no matter how well you are prepared, things will go wrong. Make an exit strategy in advance, like having one adult take your child to the car while the other pays for the meal and/or waits for take out boxes.
There is no need to stress yourself out about taking your child to a restaurant. If you try and it doesn’t work out, you do not have to force it; keep practicing restaurant skills, and one day, you will get there.