Dining out with children can be challenging enough for even the most patient parents, but when the child registers highly on the Autism Spectrum (ASD), those challenges can be even more tasking.
Many parents of children with Aspergers or other children on the spectrum choose not to entertain the thought of eating out. Their children may be disturbed by changes in their routine or perhaps they think the restaurant environment may not lend itself to a relaxing occasion, but don’t worry.
We have 10 tips for you that have been designed to help make your family event just a little bit more enjoyable and infinitely more manageable.
Practice makes perfect
Before heading out for your meal, why not try replicating the whole experience, or as much as feasibly possible, at home. Make it a fun experience for everyone by reviewing homemade menus, colouring pictures to replicate the typical restaurant give-aways or maybe even having a friend role-play as a waiter.
As your child gets used to the formalities of a structured meal in a comfortable environment, it might make the experience more manageable when you do go out for real.
Fail to prepare, prepare to fail
Even if this isn’t your first visit to a restaurant, it is always a good idea to prepare your child for what’s going to happen. Use visual schedules or social stories to illustrate the restaurant experience.
Break the time down into identifiable periods of time and share with them what’s going on and what will be happening next, i.e. the menu, the ordering process, what the waiter will be doing, etc.
If you expect to be waiting a little longer than normal, then try breaking that time down into even smaller, bitesize chunks which will keep them interested and focussed.
Timing is key
There are a few timing tips you can employ to give you the best chance of having an enjoyable meal. Start off at home. Get into the habit of making sure your child uses the loo before you head off – it’s good advice for the parents too!
It may also benefit you when choosing a time to eat. Try eating at times when the restaurant should be quieter. Avoiding their busy periods may not only help you but will also result in getting the pick of tables and your food more quickly. It’s a win-win for everyone.
Eat yourself happy!
When choosing a restaurant, do some research on their menu. Most restaurants will have a webpage where sample menus will be listed. Make sure they can accommodate the dietary requirements of your child.
If they are, for example, restricted to food that is gluten-free, make sure that this is an option. If it’s not listed or the ability to cater for it is not specifically stated, give them a call before you go. Also, where possible, try a restaurant that serves appetisers as soon as you sit down, including breadsticks, nuts, olives, etc.
This will minimise the time your child is waiting for their main meal. Italian restaurants are particularly good at doing this.
Avoid idle hands!
It is a very good idea to take something to keep your child occupied whilst out and about. In a restaurant setting, there will always be times when you need to be patient.
Even if you’re only ordering one course, there will be times when nothing seems to be happening. Having a book to read, pictures to colour or a handheld video game to play with will keep them busy and allow you the opportunity to relax.
Be prepared to leave promptly
With the best will in the world, sooner or later, things will take a turn for the worse. The trick is to be ready to go at a moment’s notice.
There are some simple tricks to make your exit as painless as possible. Ask for the bill when the staff brings your order and, if possible, pay immediately too. It will be one less thing to worry about on your way out the door.
Dining with young children of any age or ability is tough enough. Any parent will tell you the need to have eyes and ears everywhere. The key here is to be aware of what your child is doing, even (or maybe especially) if they are quiet.
Younger children on the autism spectrum may take a liking to the food on the next table or enter into a staring competition with another child nearby. Other kids may not understand what or why they’re doing it, so always by being conscious of what they’re doing so any potentially awkward moments can be averted.
Of course, no one knows your child better than you, so keep an eye out for the visual cues that let you know issues are building up. Forewarned is forearmed.
Quit whilst you’re ahead
Even if your dining experience has gone perfectly, don’t push your luck by overstaying your welcome. Ending your meal in a positive frame of mind and on a high note will stand you in good stead for next time.
Don’t be afraid to ask
This should be one of the most important aspects of any trip. If, for example, your child requires a sipping cup, then don’t be afraid to ask for one.
Similarly, if there are any other aspects of the meal that aren’t generally catered for, ask a member of staff. Chances are you won’t be the first person to ask for it, so most restaurants should be more than capable of handling your request.
If At First…..
Finally, if your meal hasn’t gone to plan, use it as a learning experience for everyone. Don’t stretch it out longer than necessary, just accept it, pay and leave.
Try not to lecture your child, just wait until they have calmed down and then talk about the experience together. Chat about what went well, in addition to those things that didn’t.
Talk about how everyone could do things differently but most importantly, don’t give up. It will get easier!
For more support with your child with ASD I, along with our highly qualified and experienced tutors and behaviour specialists, can offer you in-home assessments, consultations and behaviour plans. We offer bespoke plans to suit your family’s needs. In just a few visits, we can set up a plan for you to follow, with after school help, or perhaps home-schooling.
Natalie Verbo is the founder and director of Firefly Education London. She trained in the US as a SEN teacher, worked in homes and schools in both the US and London. She started Firefly Education London to help families navigate the maze of special education in London and beyond. She has strong professional relationships with London independent schools and other SEN professionals.