Eating Out With a Child on the Autism Spectrum
From McDonald’s to white-tablecloth restaurants, use these tips to help make a meal out delightful for you and other guests.
We all need a break from eating at home whether for convenience or simply to enjoy a different kind of meal. Author Marguerite Elisofon, author of "My Picture Perfect Family," a memoir about how her family navigated life with a child on the autistic spectrum before the Internet and support groups existed, offers these tips to help families with children on the autism spectrum — and really, all children and their families — to enjoy dining out.
1. Make sure your child is not too hungry.
Whether waiting on line cafeteria style or seated for fine dining, patience is part of dining out. It always helps if you can play a game. If you’re at a fast-food restaurant that’s not so fast, the first game can be deciding which line is best to stand in. Then you can discuss how quickly each line is moving, rooting for your own line and remarking on the progress of others.
When seated at a fancy restaurant, play word games. One favorite in our family was What Doesn’t Belong? A. Fork, B. Knife, C. Plate and D. Spoon. Make sure your child explains the reason for their choice. For older children, use more complex categories (like geography and transportation vehicles). Also encourage them to make up their own multiple-choice questions for you. Sometimes it’s fun to discover that there is more than one “correct” answer, depending on the reasons offered.
2. Polite requests.
Saying please and thank you is a must and should become automatic. Keep reminding your child in a matter of fact tone until this behavior becomes habit. If your child is anything like mine, she may surprise you by learning quickly in order to avoid being reminded.
3. Teach a no-meltdown response
If your waiter makes a mistake, it’s important to teach your child not to meltdown in response. When Samantha was young, she hated ice in her soda and would meltdown when waiters brought her ice filled glasses. She even hated ice in her water. It took close to a decade for Samantha to learn how to send back her iced drinks politely, so never give up.
4. Help your child navigate the menu
If your kid tries to order something you know they won’t like, intervene. Explain why they won’t like it — color, texture, sauce, etc. — encourage them to modify their order (sauce on the side) or suggest other menu choices. Help your child order food they will enjoy in an appropriate portion, without over ordering.
If your child doesn’t eat as much as you think they should, don’t turn food into a battleground.
5. Take turns with sibling seating arrangements.
When your child on the spectrum insists on sitting next to Mom and Dad, or in the middle, it’s OK if their sibling(s) doesn’t care. But if one or more siblings all want the same seat, they will have to take turns. If possible, discuss turn taking before going out to eat. Also if a family member feels hurt or left out, the child with autism needs to learn how to take the other person’s feelings into account. One way to teach empathy is to role play. Ask your child: “How would you feel if …?”
6. Technology at the table
A lot depends on the age of your child. If your young child with autism is unable to participate in the conversation, it’s OK to let them use a gadget for a while. Negotiate in advance when it’s acceptable to use technology at the table and when it must be put away. Every family has a different tolerance level. Neurotypical siblings at the table, especially if they’re older, should still be expected to turn off cell phones and iPads and participate in family discussions, acting as role models.
7. Table manners
All children should learn how to use silverware at home and be reasonably adept with utensils before going to a restaurant (unless it’s chicken fingers at McDonalds). At the very least, if Mom or Dad cuts their food, the child should be able to manage a fork.
8. Going to the restroom alone
Much depends on the developmental level of your child. Only you can assess their ability to navigate the restaurant or remember to wash their hands. If you’re familiar with the restaurant and the bathroom is reasonably close, you might feel comfortable allowing them to go alone. Obviously, in less familiar, more crowded places, you’ll want to make sure your child is accompanied.
9. Bumping into adult friends and modulating behavior
Teach your child how to be polite and appropriate, saying a brief hello and exchanging pleasantries, without intruding on someone else’s evening.
10. Dessert — one per customer
Any meltdowns over this issue results in no dessert. A meltdown also probably means that you’re reaching for the check, and everyone leaves without dessert. Once your child understands this routine, they’re likely to cooperate.