author's son with autism eating at a restaurant

10 Tips for Eating Out With a Child on the Autism Spectrum

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I grew up loving to eat. Several years ago there was a popular book entitled “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” I would argue all I need to know I learned at the dinner table.

Family dinners at the kitchen table were always a special time at my house. We would inhale my mother’s brisket, chicken soup and salad. Sometimes my dad would overcook (again!) a steak on the grill or we would get takeout. Regardless of the food we were eating, it was the one time of the day when we were all together. Dad was home from work, sports practices were over and now the five of us were at the table recounting the day’s activities, joking and as you would expect with three boys in the family, engaging in a bit of arguing.

A close second to dinners at home were dinners at restaurants. We didn’t need much of an excuse to go out on a Saturday night. We would make plans with other families, and the adventure began. One favorite spot was a Chinese restaurant with a Lazy Susan at the center of the table. Once the food had been served and before our parents could stop us we would spin the Lazy Susan as fast as we could in to try and get some of the plates to fly off. Remembering the General Gau’s Chicken landing in my brother’s lap always brings a smile to my face. These were times to be social, relax with family and friends and be part of the community.

After Delphine and I married and started building our own family I expected these wonderful traditions to continue. But, as most new parents will tell you, taking young kids to dinner can be challenging. The kids can get bored, fidgety, tired, no longer like a favorite food or only want to eat dessert. And kids on the autism spectrum may have even more food sensitivities.

My son Adin was no exception, and going out was stressful until we mastered these techniques:

1. Advance work: Trying the hot new restaurant may not be the best idea without first thoroughly investigating it. Make sure the restaurant has the right layout for your family. If they don’t have booths and your kiddo needs one then don’t go. If sensory overload is a factor, check that background music, ambient noise and crowds are at acceptable levels. If TV is a concern and your kiddo will demand they change the channel from Sports Center to Elmo, then this may not be the right restaurant.

2. Reservations: When at all possible make a reservation or use call ahead seating. This will help your planning, and nobody wants to arrive for dinner to discover there is long wait.

3. Talk to the manager: Call ahead and tell the manager you will coming to dinner with your child on the autism spectrum. Restaurants are generally accommodating and will help ensure you have the type of table you need and in the location you need it. They can also help to expedite your food order when faced with a limited amount of time.

4. Menu: Look at the menu online before choosing or arriving at the restaurant, and make sure there is something on it your kiddo will eat. If your kiddo is fixated on pizza, as mine is, don’t go out for Japanese. Confirm the kitchen can accommodate special diets if necessary (gluten-free, casein-free, etc.), and if not, advise the manager you will bringing in some of your own food.

5. Family meeting: Share with your kiddo either in conversation or story board what to expect. “Later today we will be getting into the car and driving to this restaurant. Here is their website/picture. Look at the menu because they have some of your favorites. Grandma and Grandpa will be coming with us.”

6. Toys: Yes! Coloring books, iPads with headphones, squishy balls, silly putty, anything your kiddo enjoys. This will help keep your kiddo happy and occupied while you are at the restaurant.

7. Snacks: Adin likes apples and Goldfish crackers. These are his “appetizers.” If your kiddo has favorite snacks, bring them with you.

8. Restaurant bag: Have a special bag for your supplies: appetizers, charging cords, change of clothes, toys, etc. This will help prevent you from forgetting anything.

9. Two cars: When possible, take two cars to the restaurant. If your kiddo is having a bad experience then one of you can take your kiddo home early. Whoever stays must bring home a big dessert.

10. Sense of humor: Dinner out is meant to be enjoyable. But even with the best planning, things happen. It is not the end of the world. Have a sense of humor, and do your best to roll with the punches.

While every child with autism is different, we have found through much trial and error that with proper planning and a positive attitude we are able to go out and have an enjoyable dining experience, and we hope that you will also.

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Vanity Fair Article About Mark Zuckerberg Opens With Insensitive Comment About Autism

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Mark Zuckerberg is a genius. There’s no debating that.

However, a description of Zuckerberg ‘s particular brand of genius has stirred up some controversy after a former Facebook employee, Antonio García Martinez, published an article about Zuckerberg in Vanity Fair.

The article begins:

Mark Zuckerberg is a genius

Not in the Asperger’s, autistic way depicted in the very fictional movie The Social Network, the cognitive genius of exceptional ability. That’s a modern definition that reduces the original meaning.

The article was meant to discuss how Facebook beat Google’s attempt to create a rival social network (Google+). But many people struggled to get past the first two sentences of the article.

According to the Interactive Autism Network, a U.S. study from 2014 found that almost half of the children with autism spectrum disorder have an average or above average intelligence (an IQ score above 85).

So what “kind” of genius is Zuckerberg, according to Martinez? He’s “an old-school genius,” Martinez writes. “The fiery force of nature possessed by a tutelary spirit of seemingly supernatural provenance that fuels and guides him, intoxicates his circle, and compels his retinue to be great as well.”

An article published by The Daily Dot wonders if “perhaps Martinez didn’t intend to offend people with autism or Asperger’s, but instead refute the image that The Social Network perpetuated of Zuckerberg.”

Martinez, known as Chaos Monkey on Twitter, defended himself on Twitter.

And again:

And again:

Twitter consversation

Conceding in the end, that yes, the article’s opening could have been better.

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5 Things You Should Never Say to a Parent of a Child With Autism

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I was out at Walmart one day with my son, Johnny. As he has a tendency to do when he’s excited, he was chattering loudly and gesturing with his hands. It was mostly words he saw on signs or numbers on price tags. I praised him for using his voice and his words, which only made him talk louder and get more excited. We were having a blast, and I was so thrilled just to hear him talk and laugh, whereas just over a year ago he could not communicate as well.

Meanwhile, other patrons and some of the employees were either staring or glaring at us as we shopped. While we were in an aisle, Johnny was loud and gesticulating with his hands. A random person in the same aisle asked, “What’s wrong with him?”

I swallowed my irritation, plastered a fake smile on my face and answered, “Nothing. He’s just excited.”

She frowned.

“Why’s he doing that with his hands?”

“He can’t verbalize his feelings yet, so that’s how he conveys his excitement. He has autism.”

Her visible annoyance was replaced with pity.

“Oh, I’m so sorry.”

My ire started to bubble up, but I held it back, smiled, nodded and walked away.

Unfortunately, parents of children with autism may encounter a similar situation like this at some point. Some people seem to think because our children are on the spectrum that there’s something “wrong” with them and we need their pity. They’re also convinced the parents and caretakers require sympathy because our kids aren’t “normal,” and we’ll also never live full lives because of that.

Well, here and now, that stigma ends. Here are five things you shouldn’t say to a parent of a child with autism:

1. “What’s wrong with him?”

Nothing. Having an autism diagnosis doesn’t mean there’s something wrong. My son just learns how to interact with his environment differently than you do. I’ll give you an example. If you see a pretty flower in the garden, you smile and stop to admire it. Johnny might see the same flower and also smile, but his excitement extends beyond his smile, and he might run into the garden and mash the flower with his hand. While you understand how to appreciate the beauty of the flower without disturbing it, he doesn’t quite get that and has to be taught. He’s not wrong, he just learns at a different pace.

2. “I’m sorry.”

I’m not! My children are as happy and healthy as yours. Why on earth would you be sorry about a child? Sure, they might react a little differently when you first meet them. And yes, I may look a little harried when my son is chatting up a storm, and my daughter, Jordan, has her hands clapped over her ears, yelling at him to stop because the sound of his voice is too loud for her. But I’m not sorry. I don’t need sympathy or pity for any of that because they’re happy, healthy and greet each morning with a deep breath and a smile. Just like your kids.

3. “Just tell him to stop.” (When he’s screaming or loud.)

It’s not that cut and dry. As I stated before, he learns at a different pace than you. He has to be taught with thorough repetition and often with the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS). Just telling him to stop isn’t effective because what he’s doing is his way of communicating. Would you like it if someone told you to stop when you were trying to talk?

4. “Isn’t he too old/big for that?”

This is my “favorite.” I got this once when we took the kids out to eat, and I requested a high chair for my son. He’s a big boy but still needs to be in a carriage at the store and often a high chair at a restaurant. He’s getting better at learning the appropriate behaviors, but because of his delay, he’s still not always easy to control. He gets antsy, he runs and he bolts. I have to do what I can to keep him safe and keep him calm. So no, he’s not too old or too big for that. I requested it for a reason because I know what my son needs. Please don’t question me and just do as I ask.

5. “He’ll grow out of it.”

No, that’s not how autism works. The diagnosis doesn’t just go away like a cold or the chicken pox. And it’s not a behavior like a temper tantrum that can be unlearned. My children will always have autism, and many people with autism go on to live full lives. Just look at Temple Grandin!

There are many more inappropriate comments, but these are just several of the most common ones I face when I’m out and about with Jordan and Johnny. So please, do yourself (and me) a favor when you feel the need to chime in when my children are doing something you think isn’t “normal” or are having a hard time in public: don’t.

Follow this journey on Autism Momming 101.

Imagine someone Googling how to help you cope with your (or a loved one’s) diagnosis. Write the article you’d want them to find. If you’d like to participate, please check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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To the Momma Whose Son Hit Me to Say Hi at a Baseball Game

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To the sweet momma of the handsome little guy who sat behind us at the baseball game, I need you to know it’s OK.

It’s OK that your little guy hit me on the shoulder. It didn’t bother me a bit. Because what you don’t know is I have a handsome little guy who has a lot in common with yours, and I’m glad your little guy wanted to say hi.

It’s OK your son didn’t look me in the eyes when I talked to him. I know that used to be tough for my guy. Some days we still struggle with it. I still enjoyed talking to him.

It’s OK that when I spoke to him, he didn’t respond to me. I could see how excited he was to be at the game. He didn’t have to tell me. My guy also struggles to find words.

It’s OK that he would make noises from the excitement. I loved hearing them. It reminded me of my guy. I’m glad he was having fun.

It’s OK that you were a little nervous for me to talk to your guy after he tapped me. I wasn’t upset in the slightest. I know I get nervous when people talk to my son because they may not be understanding, and I’m never sure what my guy will do. My son gently rubbed his fist on another boy’s face last week as a way of asking him to play. No one was hurt, but the little boy was not interested in playing after that. It broke my heart a bit. You see, I understand your apprehension.

When it started to rain and we went up to the shop I decided I shouldn’t have waited to talk to you about how similar our lives are, but when we came back, you were gone.

I’m sorry I didn’t tell you how precious your son is. I’m sorry I didn’t give you encouragement on how patient you are. I’m sorry I didn’t reassure you that you are doing an awesome job. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you I didn’t mind how your son enjoys the game. Because the shoes you wear, I wear too. The shoes of a mom of a child with special needs.

So, sweet momma, you are amazing, and so is your son. I hope you all had a wonderful time at the game.

From,

The couple in front of you

wife and husband at baseball game

Follow this journey at truly sweet photography.

The Mighty is asking the following: Share with us an unexpected act of kindness, big or small, that you’ve experienced or witnessed in an everyday place. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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What Ellen Made Me Realize About the Politics of the Autism Community

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I love watching “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” And while there isn’t usually a lot of political talk on the show, lately there has been a bit more. I’m personally not a fan of politics, and so every time the subject comes up on the show, I get a bit nervous.

But the other day, Ellen’s monologue truly opened my eyes. She explained how there are different people in the world, with different opinions. She explained how she doesn’t want to hate someone because she doesn’t agree with their political party or opinion.

And that’s when I realized the autism community is just like politics. Many people judge each other based solely on the organization they support, or their opinion on what causes autism, and so many other topics. Instead of seeing individuals, many people see sides. And that’s when you can start to see the political parties of the autism community.

The problem with this is, for many people, the moment they find out what someone’s opinion is, assumptions are made about the rest of the person. You don’t like a certain organization, so you must be against anyone who does like it. Or maybe you believe in a certain type of therapy I don’t like, so I assume you obviously don’t know what’s best for the person receiving it.

As Ellen mentioned in her monologue, this kind of automatic assumption, “…is not fair. It’s how stereotypes and labels are formed.”

What if those assumptions we make aren’t really true? Imagine all of the people we would miss out on getting to know if we simply based our decision on them on their opinion of one topic.

Perhaps everyone can’t agree on the same ideas. Maybe our opinions are different from another person’s. But we shouldn’t let that stop us from getting to know each other. We don’t all have to have the same opinions. We are allowed to disagree on some things, while coming together on at least one commonality. Because don’t we all just want what we think is best for our friends or loved ones on the spectrum?

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The Walk in the Woods That Helps Calm My Son With Autism and ADHD

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It’s a hot and sticky summer afternoon. My younger son is napping and my older son, W, is on the loose — tired, defiant and bouncing back and forth from one activity to the next. He got stung earlier this morning while walking barefoot through a field of blooming clover, adding now to his crankiness. He needs to get out of the house. Now. We both do.

“I’ll take him to Discovery Park,” I tell my husband, who nods his head in agreement.

There’s a trail there he loves. No matter his mood, when we start walking through those trees, he calms down. Instantaneously. Like he’s been scooped up into the arms of his guardian angel. She rocks him and hums an unearthly tune close in his ear, with skills of calm and soothing I will never possess. I inhale deeply, intensely grateful for the comfort and reassurance this place gives my son. And then I sigh heavily, even more intensely aware of how often I fail at that very thing. He doesn’t mention the bee sting again but trots on. And on and on, pausing only to ask which way we should go when the trail forks.

W has always been one of those “quirky kids.” Barely 2 years old, he could count past 100 and memorize the entirety of Ernest Thayer’s 1888 baseball poem “Casey at the Bat” with ease. Shortly thereafter, sitting in his highchair, cheeks smeared with spaghetti sauce, he’d tell bemused visitors the difference between an octagon, a trapezoid and a rhombus.

His chattiness and our “first-time parentness” meant he wasn’t diagnosed with autism until his 4th birthday. A year or so later, he would also be diagnosed with ADHD. In retrospect, I’m surprised this didn’t come first; the behavioral checklist for kids with ADHD reads like a table of contents for the book of our boy. W never stops moving. He gets up from the table easily 10, 15, 20 times during dinner. His beatific smile hastens the sunrise, but his temper — which his father reminds me he inherited quite honestly — is easily ignited and burns hot. So confinement, bee stings and the dog days of summer do not a peaceful afternoon make. For any kid.

W and I climb out of the car near the trailhead. Hardly a soul can be found in this part of the woods, even during sunny summer afternoons. Most people in Seattle flock to Discovery Park for the bluffs and glorious, sweeping vistas of Puget Sound. The enormous meadows and wide open sky. Not us. Our quiet path is lined with decaying nurse logs, native berry bushes and licorice ferns. Towering maple, yew and cedar trees filter the sunlight into a cheerful yellow and green checkerboard.

A series of ponds sit just off the main trail, fed by small streams we cross over numerous times along the way. The largest one is oddly and delightfully green, completely covered with the tiny remnants of giant flowering alder trees overhead. It is quiet and undisturbed, and we stop so he can throw rocks into the water. Each stone makes a satisfying plop and briefly breaks through the bright green skin to show ripples of darkness beneath.

There’s a little wooden footbridge over the stream, and soon W busies himself collecting fallen leaves, dropping them upstream off the bridge and then trotting around downstream to watch them bump and float into the pond.

Suddenly, a great blue heron flaps loudly down from the sky, all wings and honking in an ornery manner. It startles us both, and W shouts and covers his ears for a moment. But when the large bird settles in quietly to keep vigil in the branches overhead, W too settles back down.

He putters. He collects. He looks up at the sky dreamily for long moments. He quietly sings bits of songs to himself. He throws more rocks and floats more leaves. And it goes on and on, quietly and peacefully in a way it almost never goes on anywhere with walls, doors or a roof. Two or three times he stops, walks over to where I sit watching him, takes hold of both my arms and looks up at me silently.

“Hi, buddy.”

He just smiles. That smile of his. Its radiance makes flowers bloom and clouds flee the skies. I always have to catch my breath.

After an hour or so, he steps too far into the water and his left shoe gets soaked and muddy. With a wail of dismay, the green and yellow spell is broken. It’s time to go home for dinner anyway. He takes off his shoes and socks, and I’ll have to tote him back to the car. It’s OK. He’s 6 years old, but I can still carry him easily with one arm perched on my hip. It seems as though the heron might weigh more than W does, but he, too, is built like a bird. Perhaps he belongs more to their species than to mine. To flight and the feeling of motion and the wind on his face. He belongs more to the trees and the sun and the sky than to me. And if he put his extraordinary mind to the task, he could learn how to fly. I believe he could. And it wouldn’t be my place to call him back down to the ground.

On our way back up the trail, we stumble upon a blackberry patch. W loves blackberries. Like the quiet green pond, it seems this spot is also largely undiscovered. We stop, I push through the thorny tangles and he eats his fill. Then he climbs onto my back and we continue up the hill. The bee sting is still forgotten. I carry him mostly in silence until the next, “Which way should we go, Mama? Right or left?”

I don’t much care either way, my beautiful boy. Just so long as we take the path that keeps us in these woods forever, with the heron, the remarkably green pond, the blackberries and your guardian angel.

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