Do you avoid eating out because you have a child with autism, and it’s just too stressful to take him to a restaurant? We have some tips to help you avoid some common headaches when dining out at a restaurant with an autistic child.
(In the comments section below the article, please share your tried-and-true advice for managing meals out with an autistic or other special needs child! Other parents will appreciate the help.)
Pretty much everyone loves to be treated to a restaurant meal once in awhile. But when you’re the parent (or grandparent) to an autistic child, dining out can sometimes be more hassle than it’s worth — for you, your child, and the people at the restaurant. But avoid it no longer! Here we offer some suggestions to deal with some of the most common issues parents face.
Problem: Your autistic child has a hard time with change/visiting new places
There are various ways to help prepare your child for dining out. You can start with these baby steps:
- Practice the whole “eating out” experience at home first. Demonstrate reviewing a menu, ordering, coloring or enjoying another quiet pastime during the wait — and remind him that it’s important to stay in his seat.
- Have a rehearsal at a low-stakes establishment: a fast food place or salad bar/buffet establishment. Yes, the experience is a little different, but will help pave the way toward managing a meal at a typical restaurant.
- Visit a sit-down restaurant just after opening or during their slowest hours, so any problems you encounter are witnessed by as few people as possible. Consider staying only for a single course, maybe either appetizers or dessert.
Once your child (and you!) have mastered these steps, it’s time for the litmus test: dining out at a real restaurant.
When you’re ready for the dining out adventure to begin, keep these suggestions in mind:
- If your child needs time to mentally prepare for a restaurant outing, let him know the plans as soon as they’re set.
- Anticipate and explain changes if a place has been remodeled or you’re going to another restaurant location of the same chain.
- Bring along food from home if needed, as well as any favorite toys, games or books.
- Have your kids use the bathroom before leaving the house so you can hopefully avoid grappling with the public restroom rules (or, worse — a toilet aversion issue).
- Head off any problems at the pass by choosing a restaurant renowned for fast service (or at the very least, tell the server you’re in a rush).
- Consider letting the server know of your child’s special needs — perhaps in the context of asking for speedy service, or to help explain why your son is completely ignoring the question, “So what would you like to drink, young man?”
- Stay at your child’s side every moment — and be sure not to get so caught up in the amazing nachos or a great conversation that you forget to pay attention to what he or she is doing. Autistic kids may not think twice about leaning over and swiping a few fries from the guy at the next table, or staring down the teenager in a nearby booth.
- Don’t wait until juice has been spilled all over your pants before asking that your child’s drink be served in a kiddie cup with a lid.
- Avoid restaurants with anything more than a 5-10 minute wait for a table. A good way to manage this feat is to visit restaurants at an off-peak time (such as 4-5 on a weekday afternoon) so you beat the rush.
- Since fewer and fewer restaurants are accepting reservations nowadays, find out if the place at least has a “Call ahead” policy. Essentially, you call when you’re leaving home, and they put your name on the waiting list — though this typically only works up to about a half hour in advance. Restaurants that allow call-aheads include Chili’s and TGIFridays (in most markets).
- Keep things moving. When your server comes to take your drink orders, have your full meal order ready, too. If you’re just not quite that ready, do at least mention to the person waiting on your table that you’re in a hurry (to speed up service) or explain that your child has autism, and quicker service will help keep the dining experience quieter and less problematic.
- Order any of your child’s desired refills and second helpings as soon as you realize the need — don’t wait until the cup is empty or the plate is clean. (Sometimes you might want to order two of something in the first place so you can keep the process moving along.)
- Once the food is gone, your child will likely want to go home, go to the car — go anywhere else. So make yourself available to go as soon as you must… just in case. To start, request the check and have the restaurant run your card when the server brings you your main course. (Either at that point or when the meal’s actually done, you can leave the cash or sign the credit card receipt. Some people prefer to wait until the last moment before signing and calculating the tip, to ensure that service is good throughout the meal.)
- Make sure your child is actually hungry. If mealtime is a hassle at the best of times, it will be a nightmare if your son or daughter has no appetite!
- Before you head out, make sure there’s something on the menu that your child will actually eat (rice, plain noodles, french fries) — or just bring along food from home for him or her.
- When ordering, be very specific if your child has strong preferences. Don’t assume that your definition of “plain” is the same as the restaurant’s version of the word. Mention things like no garnish, no sauces, no shakes of pepper or herbs, no cheese, no toppings, no butter/oil on noodles and so forth.
- Was this meal out unplanned — and you are therefore unprepared? In a pinch, restaurants will generally have — at the very least — saltines and some fruit (often depending on what is used at the bar or as garnish).
- You might also want to carry some non-perishable foods your kid will eat in your purse or in a bag in the car.
- You can also make a pit stop at a take-out place or grocery store to get something your kid will enjoy eating, and bring that food along to the restaurant with you.
- Try not to force the issue of what your child is or is not eating, lest that cause him or her to go into meltdown mode. Really, getting him to eat right now is not worth disrupting your meal — or those of the other diners.
NEXT: When there’s too much stimulation for the autistic child, impatience and fussy eaters
Being a parent of a child with autism can be hard. I do not think this is a statement that breaks any new ground. We miss many of the things that on the surface seem so simple and enjoyable, but in practice are not.
There may be no more stressful situation for an autism family than a trip to a restaurant. It is anything but simple and enjoyable. There can be anxiety over being in a new place, sensory overload due to the sights and sounds, favorite foods are not always on the menu and the server may take too long bringing the food and check. Children with autism might not want to sit still, preferring instead to bolt for the door, flop on the ground or play their iPhones too loudly.
The tension builds: Other diners may look in our direction and the restaurant does not know how to help.
Many autism families decide the stress of dining out outweighs the enjoyment and so choose not to go. We were clearly one of these families that succumbed to the stress and limited our restaurant outings.
My wife Delphine and I started Autism Eats because we missed going out and wanted to enjoy time with our family and friends at a restaurant. We knew that other autism families felt the same way.
So three years ago, we created the Autism Eats restaurant model that ensures success and enjoyment for all guests.
Restaurants are carefully selected and must have the right physical layout for us to create our non-judgmental zone. Everyone in our room “gets it,” so there is no need to feel like all eyes are on us or to apologize for anything. All behaviors are welcome.
Families are greeted at the door to confirm that they made the right decision to join us today. They are escorted to a family table or a community table as a natural way to meet new friends. Reservations and payments are made in advance, and a variety of kid and adult food is served buffet-style. There is no waiting. Kids receive toys, and lights and background music are both turned down.
All potential obstacles to an enjoyable experience are accounted for and corrected.
To date, we have had 25 brunch, lunch and dinner events in independent and chain restaurants in multiple communities across Massachusetts, California, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Illinois, Florida and Hawaii. In the next two months, new communities in Georgia, New York, Rhode Island, Illinois, Missouri and New Brunswick will hold their first Autism Eats events.
More than 2,000 individuals with autism, their parents, siblings, extended family, friends, teachers and caregivers, have come together for Autism Eats restaurant events. We have watched people enjoy a typical restaurant outing with their families, make new friends, arrange playdates, schedule rounds of golf, network, and discuss the news, sports and politics. Wow!
If you are looking to bring your autism community together, meet new people and have fun, then starting an Autism Eats club is an easy way to do it.
We will provide you with the step-by-step instructions, from selecting the restaurant to menu planning, community outreach and running the events. We will also promote your events on the Autism Eats website, take reservations, collect payment and pay the restaurant.
If you are interested in learning more, please contact Autism Eats directly.
Problem: A very impatient/restless child with autism
Autistic kids — like almost all the kids on this planet — only have so much patience. Sitting and waiting for a table gets boring and frustrating. Your child may want to explore or simply leave — and will loudly protest being made to sit down until your table is ready. Here are some things you can do:
NEXT: Fussy, fussy! When your autistic child won’t eat
Problem: Your autistic child doesn’t want to eat anything
The majority of kids with autism are super fussy eaters. They don’t like anything unless it passes the essential look, feel, smell and taste tests — and it’s a rare morsel indeed that meets even the first two qualifications.
Don’t give up! Here are some things to keep in mind when taking a child with autism to a restaurant, diner or even a cafeteria.
When all else fails…
Sometimes there’s simply nothing that will work to calm an autistic child — your kid is D-O-N-E. Always be prepared to take your meal to go. In this case, you might want to employ the two-part exit strategy: One parent/guardian takes your child or children outside or to the car, while whoever’s paying or waiting for the takeout boxes hangs back until finished. (Remember to leave a nice tip if your waiter or waitress has dealt admirably with the situation.)
Know when to hold ’em… know when to walk away
Although it certainly is important for your child to learn how to behave in real-world situations out in public, don’t force the issue too much. You deserve to enjoy dining out, and the last thing you want to do is make the experience miserable every time. If you work at it — but don’t stress out about it — in time, everything will all come together. Until then… Thanks for your order, and please pay at the second window.
A few years ago, I was at a School meeting to discuss ways to make our entire District more inclusive. When discussing a potential mission statement for the group, one member mentioned making Special Education students “Community ready” by graduation as an end goal.
I thought about what those words implied: Community Ready. As a parent, it was clear my parent perspective was different from the educators eagerly nodding their heads in agreement. I have two young boys with autism, Greyson is 9 and Parker is 7.
I raised my hand to speak, “My boys are already community ready, at least I hope so, because we are out in the community daily” I shared. “This doesn’t mean they are perfectly behaved or can navigate the world independently- far from it. I simply mean, we go out in the community every single day, imperfectly, because that’s the only way to live and to learn. It may take some time to become successful participating members of the community, and that is something we work on.” Yes, community outings can be challenging for a child with autism spectrum disorder. As I work with my boys to help support them in the community, I also need the community to work just as hard at managing their expectations of people with autism.
Except for serious safety or health concerns, I can’t think of why anyone with autism would not be out in the community. We need groceries. We have doctors appointments. We go to playgrounds, and post offices and birthday parties. We can’t stay home every day until we reach certain predefined standards set by society.
There have been times I have stayed at home because leaving was too hard, so I get it. There’s been times I’ve sat in my car before getting out to give myself a pep talk. There’s times I’ve gotten in my car after the playground or a rough trip to Target in tears. But just like my boys- we try and try again. Sometimes we are loud and chaotic on a trip to the grocery store. We may ear piercingly scream if we have to take a turn waiting for a swing in the park. We may turn heads by being loud and messy at a restaurant. And that’s all ok.
/>Outing at 7-11. Working on: staying by mom, not touching all the things, only selecting one item, and interacting with the cashier.
One of the most well-known autistic adults, Temple Grandin says we need to have high, yet reasonable expectations for people with autism. She shares, “It hurts because they don’t have enough expectations for the kids. I see too many kids who are smart and did well in school, but they’re not getting a job because when they were young, they didn’t learn any work skills,” Grandin said. “They’ve got no life skills. The parents think, ‘Oh, poor Tommy. He has autism so he doesn’t have to learn things like shopping.”
So, where do you begin?
PICK A PLACE:
Ask yourself, what outings might be a priority for the student to engage in? Then look for ones that could be a good fit for that student. We want them to be successful, so we select something the child has a greater likelihood to do successfully (i.e.- you aren’t going to take a child who cannot tolerate loud sounds to a music concert).
Preparing is often the most important step. Evidence based practices, such as antecedent based interventions, visual supports and positive reinforcement helps family members and professionals take steps to make participating in the community a meaningful and educational experience for all.
The Autism Helper has some incredible community resources that makes teaching life skills interactive and accessible to all leaners. Life skills education containing exposure to the community enables students to have more functional independence. This BUNDLE focuses on common locations our students go in the community: The Restaurant, The Mall, The Park, and The Grocery Store.
Clear expectations are important in reducing unpredictability, and help the child know what to expect and what is expected from them in advance. Use a picture or written activity schedule to provide the child with a plan. Bring reinforcement.
Bring any items such as sunglasses, a weighted vest, headphones that may help your child if he has sensory needs.
Gradually increase the time as the child gets familiar with the environment. Leave on a positive note if possible. My boys got into a routine when we would go to Target.
Usually when we when we went, we often walked through the entire store- including the toy section every single time. In one instance, I went into Target to grab just one thing, both boys started sobbing and screaming when I attempted to pay for our item without exploring the entire store. One hallmark symptom of Autism Spectrum Disorders is what is called rigidity or a difficulty in adapting to changing environments. I realized this was a problem that we needed to resolve.
Start with short periods of time, and frequent reinforcement. In the Target instance, we started doing structured outings at Target with our Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Tutor. If you don’t have therapists to help, grab another adult if you are able. During structured outings, we didn’t go out in the community to actually shop, our goal was to begin to rewire the rigidity of needing to walk through the entire store. We started with just five minutes. We had a token board and gave frequent reinforcement (Good job staying by mom! Good job coming back! Good job keeping your hand on the cart!) After five tokens were earned, we quickly went to the check-out lane and bought orange Tic Tacs- a HIGHLY preferred item. We gradually increased the time of these outings, until needing to go through the entire store was no longer an issue.
Not all teaching experiences in the community setting need to focus on new skills. We can also use community participation as an opportunity for children to generalize current skills and strengths. Generalizing a skill means to engage in a skill in a different place, with different people, and/or with different objects.
REINFORCE like crazy. Celebrate small steps. Catch them being good. Learn from each experience, and see what you might need to do more/less/different for the next time. Most importantly, don’t give up!
Although it can be challenging, involving children with autism spectrum disorder on community outings as much as possible is important. Success over time is more likely the more children are exposed to appropriate and planned outings. It may take additional preparation and support, but this practice helps to make the experiences more comfortable and enjoyable and helps students with autism be meaningful members of the communities in which they live. They are ready now, are you?
Starting a new family can be a wonderful yet stressful experience. Newborns, and even older babies, can seem mysterious and taking care of them may be a little scary. Fortunately, babies are born with the skills and desire to tell parents what they need. In this blog, experienced moms (who happen to be experts) will help parents understand why babies behave the way they do and share tips to help parents cope with the ups and downs of this new and exciting time of life.
Monday, November 28, 2011
Tips for Taking Your Baby to a Restaurant
Recently, I was in a restaurant seated next to a large extended family that included a baby who was about 7 months old. The room was not crowded and the baby had a clear view of our table. Being a big fan of babies, I caught the baby’s eye and for a few minutes, we played little follow-the-leader games across the room. As the family was leaving, mom and baby waved good-bye and the mom thanked me for entertaining the baby during the meal. Smiling, I thanked the mom for bringing the baby. By her surprised look, I could tell that it was not a typical experience for her. It made me sad to think that taking a baby to a restaurant has become such a stressful event. In this post, we’ll share some ideas to help make this experience easier on you and your baby. Next time, we’ll talk about what you can do to make things easier for another family if you find yourself in the position I was in, as a fellow diner near a family with a baby.
When you have a choice about where you’re going out for a meal, choose the place that will be the least stressful to you. The type of restaurant can make a big difference. Consider your baby’s capacity for stimulation. How busy will it be? What is the noise level? How many other children or babies are likely to be there? If you are new to taking your baby out, you might want to stick to casual places where there are likely to be other children. You might also consider finding out if there is a covered area outside where you (or someone else) can take your baby for a walk as needed.
I’m sure that anytime you go out with your baby, you pack the diaper bag with everything that you might possibly need. Before going to a restaurant, you also should take the time to create a “game plan” with your partner or family members to deal with any challenges that may arise. Before you go, decide who will do what if something loud, embarrassing, or smelly happens!
If your baby is less than 2 months old, there is no way of knowing when your baby will be awake, sleeping peacefully, or hungry. You’ll need to be prepared for all 3. Older babies are more likely to be more predictable and it may be wise to time your outing to increase your chances of having a contented baby.
What to Watch For
Your baby is very likely to be interested in all the sights and sounds that you encounter in the restaurant. Healthy babies want to explore their surroundings. But that means you need to be vigilant to make sure that anything potentially breakable, messy, or dangerous is moved out of your baby’s reach. Relatives and friends will want to play and entertain your baby and that’s great too. Take advantage of their willingness to entertain your baby to get something to eat! But, you’ll also want to keep an eye on your baby to make sure that he doesn’t become overwhelmed or overtired. It is common for friends and relatives to ignore the early disengagement cues until your baby becomes fussy. Trying to help, they might continue to stimulate the baby with keys, toys, or games. While these distractions may work in the short term, you’ll start to see stronger and more frequent disengagement cues and your baby may become very upset. It is better to respond to the early disengagement cues with reduced stimulation (as simply as holding your baby closer to you and turned toward your body) and/or some repetitive sounds and movements until your baby seems ready to play again or falls asleep.
It’s easy to see why many parents of young children avoid restaurants and prefer to eat at home, where a lot of noise and thrown food will bother only members of the immediate family. But sometimes it’s necessary – and even fun – to eat out. Here are some tips to help everyone have a good time.
Before eating out with your child
Pick a kid-friendly restaurant. Look for restaurants that cater to families, or at least for places that are casual and loud enough to let your child blend in. Fast-food restaurants can be tempting for exactly this reason, but they aren’t the best option for encouraging healthy food choices. Buffets are great – kids have plenty of choices, you can serve age-appropriate portions, and your child can taste-test new foods. Plus everyone is walking around, so it doesn’t matter how many times you and your child get up.
Call ahead if your child has dietary restrictions. If your child has food allergies or sensitivities, confirm before you go that the restaurant is able to accommodate these restrictions. Also ask how the kitchen avoids cross-contamination, which studies have shown is common in the food industry, particularly with foods that are supposed to be gluten-free.
Go early. Avoid crowds by arriving on the early side of mealtimes. That way you’ll get seated and served more quickly. Picking a place that takes reservations also cuts down on wait time.
Pack quiet toys and snacks. Bring reliable amusements, such as favorite books, games, and quiet toys that will hold your child’s interest while you wait for food or others are finishing up. Throw in some snacks in case the food is slow to arrive or your child rejects it.
Decide on your technology policy. Different families have different rules about using technology at the table. Before you leave home, tell your child what you’ll allow at a restaurant, and be consistent. Once you’ve used technology to entertain your child at a restaurant, he’ll likely expect it the next time you eat out.
Keep in mind that, for preschoolers, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends no screen time during meals and one hour or less of high-quality programming per day, preferably viewed with a parent or caregiver.
Once you’re at the restaurant
Order kid-friendly food. This is not the time to spring something new on your child if she’s a picky eater. Stick with recognizable favorites, ask how things are prepared, and order from the kids’ menu, if there is one. (This is an opportunity to help your child make healthy food choices and recognize appropriate portions.) Let the server know if your child is sensitive to spices, and ask for milder versions if so.
Keep it moving. To save time, skip the appetizers and go straight for the entrees. If your child seems especially hungry, ask if your server can bring out your child’s dish first. If not, request some bread, cut fruit, or raw vegetables for your child to munch on while waiting.
Be considerate. If your child is disturbing other diners, ask for the check, pack up, and leave without fanfare. You can always try again another time.
Show your appreciation. If your child makes a big mess or the server has to give your table a lot of extra attention, express your gratitude with a heartfelt thank-you and generous tip. As a bonus, tell the manager how much you appreciate the server’s help.
Teaching your child to behave at restaurants
Practice before you go. If you consistently model and expect age-appropriate table manners at home, you’re more likely to see your child behave the same way when dining out. To prevent surprises, talk to your child about what will happen when you eat out and how you expect him to behave. Then set your table, pretend you’re eating out, and practice. You can even create your own menu and take turns playing “customer” and “server.” Keep it short and fun, focusing on one skill you want to reinforce. A two-year old’s pretend-play skills are fairly limited, so the younger your child is, the more you may need to take an active role in acting out a restaurant scenario.
Choose your battles. A restaurant is not the place to get into a power struggle with your child. Aspire to good basic behavior, such as not disturbing other people, but ignore minor transgressions rather than getting into a battle of wills that could spoil the whole meal.
Treat eating out as special family time. A restaurant meal is a social event and an opportunity to spend time together – eating, talking, playing games like I Spy, drawing, and just generally having fun. The more engaged your preschooler is, the more likely he is to be fairly well behaved.
Persevere. Even if you have a meal that ends in tears, try again. As young children practice appropriate behavior, it starts to become almost second nature. Over time practice will yield a wonderful reward: your family enjoying a pleasant restaurant experience together.
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A TikToker is calling out a patron at a restaurant who threw a fit over her and her friend’s children making noise.
TikTok user @bamskye2426 shared a short video of the confrontation, which she says took place at a “family oriented spot” in Long Island.
“According to Karen this isn’t the place for autistic children,” she wrote.
The woman had clearly already been complaining about the children prior to the start of the 11-second clip and yells that “this is not the place” while other patrons stare.
When she realizes the TikToker is recording, she says “good” and reiterates her belief that the mother is “wrong” about insisting her children and their friends have every right to be there.
In the caption of the video, the TikToker implied the first posting of the video was removed from the platform. “Since the original was booted. Karen had meltdown over kids talking and laughing,” it reads.
An additional video posted to @bamskye2426’s channel showcases the behavior the woman was apparently upset with—two young children laughing and talking at their own table.
“The kids didn’t have a tantrum. They didn’t get up from their table. They didn’t go to anybody else’s tables to bother them. They didn’t do any of the poor behaviors that this grown woman exhibited,” the mom says in another video explaining the situation.
She also alleged the woman followed up her noisy complaint by demanding free food and walking out of the restaurant without paying her bill, causing some viewers to speculate that the woman’s “meltdown” was a stunt to get a free meal.
“This is [an] EXTORTIONIST at work,” wrote @audiogeek58. “If you do not like kids, stay home or go to adult only restaurants.”
Many others also took @bamskye2426’s side, noting that dealing with noise is part of being out in public and that the woman lost all potential credibility when she appeared to take issue with autistic children, specifically.
“Kids are humans and can be in a restaurant. If you want a quiet dinner, home is good,” wrote @adf0331.
“You know where autistic children belong?” @beckyl1113 asked. “EVERYWHERE! My autistic daughter belongs anywhere and everywhere and if she isn’t welcome, I won’t spend money there.”
Another viewer admitted, “I get really bad anxiety when kids are loud near me in a restaurant. BUT ya know what? I know it’s my issue and not the kids or anyone else’s.”
@bamskye2426 says in another follow up that after everything went down, the owner reassured the group that the children had done nothing wrong and were welcome at his restaurant.
“We need to embrace moms and embrace children and realize it’s just part of life,” she said.