10 EATING OUT TIPS FOR AUTISM FAMILIES
1. Try to make sure your child is not over hungry when going out to e Whether waiting on line cafeteria style or seated for fine dining, your child will need to be patient. 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 on. Then you can discuss how quickly each line is moving, rooting for your own line and remarking on the progress of others—much like watching a horse race in slow motion. When seated at a fancy restaurant, you can 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. Making 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. 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. Kids will eventually eat when they’re hungry enough. My son once fasted two and a half days in protest for being grounded (while still drinking gallons of Coke). He eventually scarfed down a hamburger and fries (while still grounded).
5. Seating arrangements with siblings—taking turns. 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 ASD child 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 will have 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 rest room alone—a judgment call. 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—modulating behavior. Teach your child how to be polite and appropriate, saying a brief hello and exchanging pleasantries, without intruding on someone else’s evenin
10. Dessert—one per customer! Any meltdowns over this issue results in no dessert. A meltdown also probably that means you’re reaching for the check, and everyone leaves without dessert. Once your child understands this routine, they’re likely to cooperate.