Thursday, July 14, 2011

Eat Out - Even With An Autistic Child

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.)

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.

Problem: There's too much stimulation

Restaurants are typically crowded and noisy -- that's par for the course. But as a parent, you know that some autistic kids have a really hard time with sounds, movement, smells and sights.

Apart from obviously trying to avoid restaurants altogether if this is a big problem for your child, you will want to do what you can to at least minimize the worst of these sensory issues. Here are some suggestions:

   - Plan to visit at a quiet time and ask to be seated away from other tables -- particularly those with parties or groups.

   - Try not to sit right by the bathrooms, kitchen or main entryway, as this will mean a constant parade of people by the table.

   - Sit in a corner so you only have two walls open to sound.

   - At your table, seat your child where he will be least disturbed: may be with his back to the people milling around, or on the opposite side of the table so he doesn't have to be near the patrons and servers walking by.

   - Ask for high-backed booths when available, instead of tables. (Even regular booths may be preferable)

   - Ask your server to please warn you before they sing a rousing rendition of a birthday song for another table, so maybe you can take your child outside for a few minutes.

   - If your child can tolerate earplugs, always have some handy.

   - Take your child for a walk outside or go sit in the car if things get too stimulating. (You might want to ask for a table near the door for just this reason.)

   - Try to keep your child occupied: bring pen and paper, books, or even a "for restaurant-times only" toy.

Problem: Your autistic kid won't stay in his chair

   - Ask for a booth -- this way, you can block your child's exit. (Do, however, be aware that many restaurants have plants and various types of art on mantels or walls around the booth, and these may present a hazard in and of themselves.)

   - If you do get seated at a table with chairs, have your child sit in the spot furthest away from other customers (a corner by the wall or between two other people in your party) to minimize any disruption to others in the restaurant.

   - See the suggestions in the stimulation problem, above.

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:

  -  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.)

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.

  -  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.

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.

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Hey there, just wanna thanks you for this great post. You cannot imagine how much it has help me and I am sure others too. There are too many occasion which I do not know what to do. I sent him toEnrichment Centres in Singapore
that provide classes for autistic child, well, he had not been doing so well either.

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