6 Tips for Dining Out with Your Child with Autism

Nerdguy and I used to spend a good deal of our time going to restaurants before we had kids.  It was a combination of my lack of cooking ability, laziness, and the fact that we just really enjoy eating out and trying new food.  It also explains why we were always broke.  Now the kids explain that one.

We don’t eat out very often with the kids, and for awhile we didn’t eat out at all, because it was just too hard.  But we do try to go from time to time in order to keep up what few skills we have worked on with them, so that when a special occasion (surviving a Monday) rolls around we can go out and have a good time.

All weekend Maggie has been asking to “Go to a restaurant.  The dinner,” and we decided to oblige.  We are trying to use positive reinforcement for using her words to communicate a request.  So off we headed to Boston Pizza for dinner.  Of course on the way over, the other girls told us that Maggie was scripting from an episode of the Bubble Guppies, which is a show about fish, and apparently one of the waiters in the episode flies.  This also explained why she was asking for rice and beans – that’s what was served on the show.  I became very concerned as we reached the restaurant that this was going to go badly, as perhaps Maggie wasn’t expecting a run-of-the-mill dining experience.  I had no idea how I was going to handle any Bubble Guppy meltdowns, but I do have some tips for dining with kids with autism at restaurants that are not run by fish:

1) Choose a Familiar Restaurant

We have a handful of restaurants that we keep in our rotation.  This allows for familiarity with the food and the environment.  Maggie knows what she likes to order (this isn’t necessarily what she will eat of course – she insists on ordering chicken fingers but will not eat them and will instead steal Grace’s hotdogs – if we order the hotdogs instead there will be screaming).  If you are really lucky, then the staff will even get to know what you need.

2) Go early

We are going to be excellent snowbirds, as we are already well-trained to hit the restaurants at early-bird special time.  Our rule is that we won’t wait for a table.  Ever.  And we also won’t go somewhere and not stay, because that is not cool in Maggie’s book.  She gets upset even if we pull into a parking lot, but never park or go through a drive-thru, so an abandoned meal would not go over well.  So in order to be confident that we can be accommodated, we go early.  Also it is less busy and noisy at that time, and there will be more time to gear down for bed and let the build-your-own sundae wear off.

3) Tell the Staff What you Need

It starts with our arrival when I tell the hostess that we need a table with chairs, or a booth where one side doesn’t back onto anyone.  Maggie is a bouncer, and part of us having a stress-reduced meal is not having to worry through the whole meal that she is annoying the people backing onto us with her fidgeting.  Some may say that we should teach her to sit without bouncing, but we feel that eating out is stressful enough for her, that the bouncing is one way that helps her to cope, and we aren’t going to deny her that.  Besides – bouncing is better than screaming any day of the week.  We also ask for the check as soon as we have our food so that we can pull the ripcord anytime and bail.

4) Seating Strategy

In addition to planning what type of table we need, we also know exactly where we want each person to sit before we even get to the table.  There is no time for hesitation or musical chairs, so I am mentally mapping it out as we arrive, based on the types of tables available.  Maggie either needs to be on the inside of a booth so that she doesn’t escape, or between Nerdguy and I at a table.  Molly can’t be across from Maggie because she freaks out with every kick.  And depending on the mood of the day, Molly and Grace may need to sit separately as well.  I swear that the seating chart at my wedding was less complicated than this.

5) Place your Order

The minute the kids sit down they want to dive into the activity book or colouring sheet, but I make sure they pick their food out first, and remind them to choose their side dish and drink in order to speed things along.  I love menus that have pictures of each item because Maggie can point, and even circle the items that she wants.  I loathe menus that include dessert pictures right beside the food, because Maggie focuses on that and won’t tell us anything other than “Ice cream.  I want ice cream.”  We have all of our children order their own food in order to practice speaking with adults, and also their manners.

6) Take the Tech

The iPad is what really allowed us to start dining out again.  When Maggie walks into a restaurant she immediately freezes and places her hands over her ears.  Most people assume that it is the noise, and sometimes it is, but she has also done this in completely empty restaurants, and does it in pretty much every new place/room that she walks into.  I’m not sure if she does it because of the potential for noise, or if it is just a way to block out some of the sensory overload coming her way with a new environment.  We have found that she is very content with the iPad and some headphones because she can tune out the world around her for a bit.  I see the stares we get sometimes from people with the tsk tsk in their expressions – look at those indulgent parents letting a child play video games at the dinner table.  They’re the people that I hope have a hair in their food.

Those are the main techniques that we employ for eating out.  Did I miss any that work well for your family?  I’d love to hear your advice in the comments!  In the meantime I will be in the kitchen “checking on” those leftovers.


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