For parents of an autistic child dining out as a family is often a rare event. At home the child is enveloped in a place of structure and routine which ensures comfort, dining out is rapt with unpredictable situations which can prove to be stressful and ultimately overwhelming for the family.
Before Going Out To Eat
If your child has difficulty with new places it’s a good idea to prepare them as well as you can.
Consider the Restaurant
There are many different styles of restaurants, ask yourself the following questions to ensure you choose the right one for your child.
- What food does your child prefer, does the restaurant serve it?
- Will the environment be overwhelming?
- What are the quieter times of day to dine?
- Will you have to wait for a seat?
- Has the child been to the restaurant before?
- Are there activities for the child while waiting for food?
Practice Dining Out
Set the scene at home and have the family run through a practice dinner as if you’re at your restaurant of choice. Include everything from background music to cutlery.
- Discuss what the restaurant will look and sounds like.
- Create a menu for your child to order from.
- Explain the process of choosing your food and then waiting for it to be prepared for you
- Don’t forget to include what can happen if the food is served incorrectly and has to be returned.
- Using a public restroom, give the child an idea of what it will look like and the process
- Practice sitting appropriately, establish non-verbal reminders for sitting upright, keeping hands down and any other cues you’ll need.
- Use the opportunity to include social skills, speaking at acceptable volumes, using manners and holding conversations at the dinner table.
The Dining Experience
After practicing you feel that your child is ready for their family dining experience, here are a few ideas which will help things run smoothly.
- Choose a restaurant which will be quieter and go at a time of day when it’s least busy.
- A fast service or buffet style restaurant may be the best choice for this first experience.
- Consider phoning ahead to let the restaurant know of your child’s special needs, they can facilitate you by seating you in a quiet section or providing speedy service.
- Plan to stay for a single course, appetizers are a good choice and the reduced time will stack the odds in the child’s favor.
- Choose a “good” day to dine out, if your child is in a stressed or unhappy mood you’re setting yourself up for failure.
- Ensure your child uses the restroom before leaving the house.
- Bring along food or toys from home if necessary, the goal of this first outing isn’t for your child to clean their plate but to experience dining out.
- Sit in a corner location with your child’s back facing the room. This will reduce the stimulation so your child’s not overwhelmed by other diners and servers passing by your table.
- If possible try to sit near a window which will provide distraction for your child during waiting periods.
- Choose a high-backed booth when possible with you sitting in the outside seat. This will reduce the chance of your child wandering around.
- Bring ear plugs to use in case the sounds are bothersome to your child.
- Stay with your child at all times, use the non-verbal cues you’ve established and try to relax and see this event for what it is….progress!
This outing isn’t the be-all and end-all, know when your child has had enough and cut your losses when it’s time to leave. Leaving him/her with a positive memory of dining out will help them prepare for the next dinner out.
Do you have any tried and true tips which have worked for your family? Please share them so others can find dining-out success! Feel free to leave a comment here or join us over on our Autism United Facebook page!