In my Previous post I talked about some of the sensory difficulties and such that can be associated with going out to dinner when one is on the spectrum. I promised a follow up with some ideas, and suggestions to some of these common problems.
First, let me take you back, just a little bit to how I came about these different ways of doing things. My older child, Bubby is almost 10 years old. He is on the milder end of the spectrum, some doctors say PDD-NOS and other Asperger's, and still others High functioning autism. I tend to to go with HFA, or mild autism, as I don't care much for functioning labels on humans. Anyway, he wasn't diagnosed until he was almost 5 and wouldn't have been then if it weren't for his brother being evaluated due to his unmistakable autism features, namely nonverbal. So, I trudged with him in tow to every place, including restaurants treating him as if he were a typical child until autism came into my awareness when he was 4. He wasn't a typical child and the disparity between my expectations and his behavior became increasingly clear via meltdowns. He threw a whopper of a meltdown every place we went the first 4 yrs of his life, without fail. I came home and cried after every time I attempted to leave the house with him during that time. It was awful. After discovering he was on the spectrum (and subsequently myself) I was able to arm myself with this knowledge. I was able to accommodate what he needs to help him feel comfortable in his environment, and this made all the difference. These little nuggets of info would have made a world of difference in my family's lives 8 years ago, so I am hoping they might help some other parents to be able to go out to eat and have a little time to relax without it being such a drag out struggle.
1. Decide where you want to eat.
I know that seems pretty simple and something you do anyway, but... let's take it back a few steps and think a little more about it.
Firstly, does it have your child's favorite food, or food they like to eat? Many kids on the spectrum will only eat a small variety of things. With my boys, they almost always will insist on chicken strips and fries, or pizza. Where we go must have these things, otherwise there will likely be a meltdown, or at the least some bored kids and wasted food. You can call someone you know who has been there and ask, or call the restaurant and ask. Depending upon where you're going, I have been surprised to find menus on line for many restaurants.
If there is a good chance of no food on the menu that your child will eat, and you need to meet at a specific place, say for a social gathering, then you can bring food in with you. This one is gutsy, and takes courage, but I've done it before when a group of people we were meeting at a European cafe where there were no chicken and fries, or pizza. I had my going out to the zoo/beach bag with us, so we stopped at McDonald's and got the boys some food and brought it with us, purchasing their drinks at the other restaurant., and taking our trash with us. As long as you're patronizing the restaurant you're eating at as much as possible, and it's for special needs only, then I don't see why this isn't okay.
How are your child's waiting skills? Keep in mind your child's emotional, and cognitive level when selecting a place to dine. If they can't stay seated for than a few minutes, or has had some major issues in the past with dining out, then perhaps you may be better off doing fast food. Fast food venues offer quick escapes and quicker overall eating time than other restaurants. Save the nicer places for grown up times, like dates with your spouse for the time being. We rarely took our kids anywhere else for a few years, because Bubby was just unable to handle the slower, more formal atmosphere. Fast food places are excellent places to practice manners and good behavior.
2. How crowded is the establishment likely to be?
Any place around where we live that's any good to eat at, and that's not fast food, is packed during meal times. This is not only an issue for my boys, but also for me. I can't handle the noise and the crowds. It really takes away from my whole experience of going out, which I do enjoy doing. If you know ahead of time that the restaurant might be super busy, then it might be a good idea to go on an off time. Sometimes, we will go at 5:00 or 5:30. Other times, we will have a snack and go closer to 7:00 or 8:00. (the later time sometimes is still just as crowded,so beware of that) If it's busy and we need to go at a peak time, due to not planning ahead, or unforeseen circumstances we will split up and my husband will wait inside and me and the boys will wait in the car or walk around until our table is ready. My husband will text me and the dreadful wait in the shoulder to shoulder crowded corridor is avoided. Also, I sometimes see if there is a 'call ahead list'. It's pretty much the same as reservations, but not as strict of format. That way you can shorten your wait for a table that way.
3. Picking out your table.
I doubt that NTs really ever think about their table placement, much, but I know I sure do! First, if at all possible, always pick a booth. I hate sitting at tables. Booths are much more private, quiet, and block out so much more stimuli. Tables make me anxious and nervous. Plus, I can kind of pen in my boys in booths.
Next, locate where the most noise is coming from. The cash register, the door , the kitchen, ect.. Find the table as far away from these areas as possible. The least amount of traffic and noise, the better. If you have child who is frightened of motor noises it is imperative you not sit by the kitchen where blenders, and other machinery will likely set off a meltdown. Beans is that way, and it really hurts his ears to be subjected to these noises.
If you are familiar with the restaurant, or already know what your child is going to eat, then by all means, order with your drinks. There's no need for the waitress/waiter to take the orders all at once. If you don't need to see the menu to make a decision, then by all means, get the food on it's way. I know my boys take forever to eat, plus get bored waiting. Letting them get their food quicker is a bonus for everyone! If they are verbal, then let them order for themselves, if they want to. Being able to order food at a restaurant is a very important life skill that may require lots of practice. It's important that they feel confident and encouraged without judgement.
Before you leave the house you should pack an entertainment bag of some sorts. Bubby is old enough to remember his own, which now consists of his DS. I used to allow him to pick 2 or 3 Thomas Trains to take to play with, or some other toys that were small and easy to pack up. Beans doesn't play with toys, but likes to tap on random objects. Cardboard being his favorite, especially the little boxes gum comes in. I save those for restaurant and shopping only. They're tiny and novel, because he doesn't get them everyday. People stare. I let them. They will do that more and more as he gets older and his voice continues to deepen when he makes his noises and taps at everything. If he gets to loud I remind him he needs to use a 'quiet mouth' but I have no idea if he even understands me.
This is more meant for parents than the children here. It's up to us to model appropriate behavior for our kids and to let them know what they can and can't do. If your ASD child is going into meltdown (and you know what that looks like) and can't get calmed down in less than 5 minutes, then please take them outside to walk around or to sit in the car to calm down. There was not one time before my son was 5 that my husband and I didn't have to take turns eating at restaurants due to having to take Bubby out to cool down during his many meltdowns. It's not okay to let your kid scream bloody murder in public and ruin everyone else's meal. Also, even ASD kids need to learn that it's not okay to scream like that in public. Meltdowns are to be dealt with with dignity, not in front of a gaping audience.
The same goes for letting your child run around a restaurant. Not okay. It's disruptive and someone could get hurt. I've seen other ASD parents do this before, then proceed to hand out their Autism Awareness cards. I find that sort of awareness humiliating. My boys were sitting there nicely while theirs were running around, making all sorts of noise and got so far ahead of them he ran out into the parking lot. Sometimes, ASD kids do need to move, and it's okay to walk around with them holding their hand, or even take them outside and walk a few minutes if they need to. I have to do this at times with Beans, though thankfully not Bubby anymore.
I hope that helps make your next dining out experience a little more enjoyable. Let me know if you have any questions or would like to share some tips of your own.