Dining out with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Tips to having a successful restaurant meal with your family

Taking the kids out to eat can kick start their appreciation for exploring new foods and environments – something that can last a lifetime.   

But for some kids, it can be a bit scary entering the unknown and especially so for youngsters on the autism spectrum. With some preparation and patience, however, there are opportunities to create some memorable meals together, even away from the comfort of your own kitchen table.

First though, consider this scenario provided by Melanie Potock, a pediatric speech language pathologist and feeding specialist, and co-author of “Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater”:

“When I’m working with a family with a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), I ask parents to imagine that suddenly I’m inviting everyone to dinner – but it’s at a foreign country and we are going right now,” she said. “I’ve got reservations for us at a new restaurant that I’m quite excited about! As we enter the front door…the place just looks different than the restaurants in your hometown, and you’re not sure exactly where to rest your eyes, so you scan the room to get your bearings. You notice new aromas that are definitely not like the food at home, and even the new sounds make you feel a bit cautious, because you just don’t know what to expect.”

Suddenly, the environment is different; there are new people you’ve never seen before and the food choices are things you’ve never had before – or even if you have, they aren’t prepared in the same way. While that can be disconcerting for many, imagine what it might be like for someone with ASD.

“All of their senses are bombarded with new stimuli, and it can be overwhelming,” Potock said. “Our job as parents is to help prepare our kids for the new experience and support them in the process of dining out. With time and the right supports in place, kids can learn to enjoy dining out with the family.”

Courtesy photo

The Morgan family, with Jaxson (4½) and Logan (10 months).

J.P. and Stephanie Morgan have just begun venturing out with their boys, son Jaxson, 4½, and Logan, 10 months. The Nashua couple’s youngest is content as long as he has some toys and snacks to sustain him. Jaxson, though, wants his food right away and doesn’t quite understand how to wait.

“This can present a challenge, especially on a busy night that results in a wait before we are even sat,” his mom said. “He will demand to be sat and brought his food and cry if we don’t prepare.”

So they talk about the process with Jaxson after watching a social story video about going to a restaurant, talk about what they saw on the way to the restaurant, and bring along toys and coloring books – and as a last resort, they might revert to a game on the phone.

“He knows if he is good, he can get a dessert, too, so that makes it a little easier,” Stephanie Morgan said. “When things are difficult because waiting can be hard, we use a lot of redirect with the items we brought.” Sounds pretty typical, right?

In many ways it is. Morgan said, “I would say it’s a combination of being four and having autism. Most kids at four have challenges with waiting. However, our challenge is amplified because if he’s impatient or his food isn’t what he wanted there is an urgency to get through to him before the meltdown gets worse.” It generally takes both parents to get through to Jaxson, which can be challenging in itself given they have another very young son who needs attention, too.

“It will take both J.P. and I constantly repeating his name and getting him to focus on us,” she said. “We will have to gently touch his arm and say his name a few times over and over and lots of ‘look at me’ for us to even begin to redirect.”

According to Potock, having a conversation prior to the outing with other members of the family who are joining you for dinner can be helpful.

“If it’s a partner or spouse, plan ahead of time for one adult to quietly help the child out of the restaurant if the situation appears to be just too challenging and a meltdown is imminent,” she said. “If dining alone with your child, quietly explain to the waiter that you may need to leave immediately and you’d like give the manager your information in case there is no time to pay the bill.”

Heather MacDonald and her husband, Harold Kim, of Windham, love dining out with their boys, Connor, 7, and Griffin, 6, although she acknowledges it does have its challenges.

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The Kim boys,  Connor (7) and Griffin (6).

“Connor is on the spectrum and sometimes cannot control his behavior,” MacDonald said. “Griffin is allergic to many foods, including nuts and eggs. Going out to eat requires research – Is it family friendly? Is it somewhere that cooks their food with nuts? Will they tolerate loud children? We have been to restaurants where Connor will act up and we get judgmental looks from staff.”

Both parents like to experiment a bit when dining out. Both boys like Mexican fare and with tortilla chips, salsa and rice – all safe choices – and friendly staff at some of their favorites, it can be a winning meal away from home.

“We have downloaded games to our phones as backup,” MacDonald said. “We also love restaurants with crayons and their own tablets. Also having Netflix and headphones is helpful if the boys get bored.”

In spite of preparation, issues can still erupt. Over time they’ve learned “calm, but firm statements to try to calm him down” can be helpful.

“We also talk about going to the ‘green zone’ to calm down,” said MacDonald. “When he has an episode, he requires lots of affirmation and physical hugs from the person he is not mad at. We’ve learned a lot of crafty ways to communicate with him so we don’t have to leave the restaurant.”

It’s important to remember, Potock said, “that this takes time. Break everything down into manageable steps, including starting with just a short visit to the new restaurant and build from there. Focus on what went well! Send a thank you note or make a quick phone call to the management if they were especially helpful.”

Keep in mind that dining out with the kids, especially if a family member is on the autism spectrum, takes preparation and practice. Start small, celebrate successes and find what environments work best for your child. Before long, you may well find yourself looking forward to breaking away from the kitchen and enjoying a meal out with the whole family.   

Pamme Boutselis is the mom of four now-grown kids, a serial volunteer and writer. Follow her on Twitter @PammeB.

Categories: Autism