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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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Originally published: June 8, 2016
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