Eating at a Restaurant: 25 Tips for Parents of Children on the Autism Spectrum

Eating out as a family can be a lot of fun, or it can be a terrible catastrophe if your Aspergers or high-functioning autistic (HFA) son or daughter can't be accommodated in a way that helps you keep the peace. With a little preparation and these simple tips, you can give your dining experience the greatest chance at success.

You'll also be able to cut and run when you need to. And always remember, your child doesn't need to actually eat supper at the restaurant if he's a picky eater. Is he refuses to eat what he ordered – it’s not worth fighting over. Simply get a “to go” box.

Eating at a Restaurant: 25 Tips for Parents of Children with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism—

1. Ask for a booth. Child-containment is easier in a booth than at a table. Put your  youngster between an adult body and the wall, or between two adult bodies.

2. Ask for food right away. A hungry youngster is a cranky youngster. Ask for crackers or a small appetizer as soon as you sit down.

3. Ask for the bill right away. One of the most dangerous moments of restaurant dining comes when your youngster wants to get out of there – NOW! But you still have to get the waiter's attention, get the check, get the change, and leave the tip. Even if the staff is prompt with your requests, that tense time of waiting can make the difference between a successful outing and an unsuccessful one. Request the check when the food comes, pay while you're eating, and be ready for a quick getaway.

4. Be a regular. Kids with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism often thrive on routine, so going to a familiar place may buy you better behavior and less agonizing over what to order. Then, too, if the staff gets to know you, your family may receive more personalized service and more generous understanding. If you find a place that's particularly accommodating, reward them with repeat business. Tipping generously wouldn't hurt, either.

5. Bring food. Sounds crazy to bring food in a restaurant, right? Depending on the popularity of the restaurant and the food you order, there are times when the wait for food is too long for Aspergers and HFA children. There is the option of appetizers, although most are not overly healthy options and will likely spoil a youngster's appetite before dinner arrives. Instead, take a small snack (e.g., a handful of crackers, a few fruity snacks, etc.). Yes, moms and dads tend to think of this when the diaper bag is still around, but even at 6 years of age, your youngster can get hungry when a restaurant is moving extra slow. The little snack saves you money and keeps him from filling up before dinner.

6. Bring props. A restaurant can be a boring place with nothing to do except stab things with salad forks. It will be well worth it if you keep a bag of small (silent) toys just for restaurants, waiting rooms, and other times when you need a happy child (e.g., tiny "magic writers," crayons and a little notebook, small books, dime store games, etc.).

7. Call Ahead. Ask if the restaurant is a child-friendly environment. Mention that you’ll be bringing a “special needs” youngster so that the staff is ready when you arrive. This will also increase your chances of getting a waiter who’s good with children. If you anticipate coming back, leave a good tip.

8. Dine at off-times. Honestly, if you're taking your youngster out for dinner at 7 p.m. on a Saturday night, you deserve the nightmare of long wait-times, cramped dining rooms, and slow service that you're sure to get. Get to the restaurant early in the evening and/or on weeknights for a more leisurely, low-stress dining experience (and fewer disapproving fellow diners).

9. Do some advance research. If you're not sure a restaurant will have something that fits your youngster's dietary needs or picky tastes, see if you can find a menu online. Many chain restaurants have websites that give nutritional information and other previews of what your mealtime choices will be. If the restaurant you're investigating has no such online presence, call and speak to a staff member, or stop by and preview the menu prior to dining there.

10. Don't allow any bad behavior. If your youngster acts up, then the minute he starts, scoop him up and remove him from the situation. You don't have to punish him. You just have to remove him to a place where he will not bother anybody. Explain to him that he was upsetting people, and when he's feeling calm, you can go back. If he's truly in a meltdown state, get a doggy bag and wait a month to try again.

11. Everyone to the bathroom right after drinks come out. This way even if they don't have to go, they get a chance to try, and their hands are washed before dinner. No more getting up and spending 5 minutes in the restroom while your food gets cold. The added bonus for fidgety children is the chance to get out of their seat and move around a bit while their food is cooking.

12. Have fun! This is the biggest one of all. Happy kids are easy to handle. Be silly, make it enjoyable and your youngster will naturally be much easier to deal with.

13. Hide the condiments. If the table has bottles of salt and pepper and sugar and ketchup and what-all sitting conveniently in the center of the table where you youngster just will not stop playing with it, move it. Put it out of your youngster's reach, put it on a nearby empty table, or ask the server to take it away. Even bland food is more tolerable than spending an entire meal saying “put that down!” and scooping up spilled spices.

14. If your youngster has allergies, ask questions. The menu may say pasta with marinara sauce, but when it arrives with that unwanted sprinkle of cheese on top (because he is lactose intolerant), your kid is not going to be happy about waiting while a new plate is made for him. Also, be sure to check the food to ensure an entirely new plate was made and not just scraped off the old one.

15. Make it quick. No youngster, no matter how well behaved, will sit nicely on his hands for 1½ hours. Be realistic when you choose a restaurant and a time for going.

16. Pack some hand sanitizer so you don't have to stress too severely if your fidgety youngster crawls under the table.

17. Pick places where your youngster will be welcome. Eating at a restaurant is going to be hard enough. Don't add the burden of taking your youngster someplace where perfect behavior will be a necessity. Save the fancy joints for a rare night out with friends or your spouse. There are enough loud kid-friendly restaurants around most neighborhoods to give you adequate choice and your youngster a little wiggle-room.

18. Practice beforehand. Host tea parties or fancy suppers to teach your child proper manners. Let her dress up if you like and make it fun. Explain about how adults eat and what good manners are. It will be much easier for her to act polite in restaurants if it feels like old hat.

19. Relax. Calm down. Your “tantrumming” youngster is not a reflection on your parenting skills or on your image. Do not let your youngster's annoying behavior make you cranky. Take some deep breaths and let go of any anger, embarrassment or resentment you may be feeling.

20. Remember that it's not a battle. You are not enemies at war with each other. You are your youngster's ally! If he starts to misbehave, then lovingly find a way to help him act better. Threats, insults, ignoring or grabbing will only give you a more upset youngster. You can be firm without being unfeeling, and you can discipline – and still be a loving, caring parent.

21. Request extra napkins. The napkins the restaurant sets out will probably quickly make their way to the floor, or get messed up by the time the salad course is cleared. Request extra napkins when you order so that you're ready when your youngster has a face-full of chili or hands full of spaghetti sauce. He who hesitates gets covered with it, you know.

22. Respond to trouble before it happens. This is the biggest way to keep your youngster well behaved in restaurants. If you wait until he's climbing the back of the booth and trying to sit on someone's head before you freak-out and drag him to the bathroom, you've lost. Instead, pay attention to his cues. When he starts to get fidgety and whiny, step in and find a way to redirect him. Once Aspergers or HFA children are being a full-fledged nuisance, there's no real way to correct it without making a scene.

23. Sit In The Back. When making a reservation, request an out-of-the-way table. If your children get cranky or hyper, they won’t disturb other diners.

24. Talk about it beforehand. Even a very young kid can understand if you explain that restaurants are places where we must have very good behavior. Right before entering, remind your youngster that nobody is allowed to be noisy or run around in restaurants.

25. Walk around. Go on at least one stroll. Take your child by the hand and slowly wander in whatever direction you’re not going to trip a waitress or annoy anybody. It gets the child out of his seat and lets him stretch, relieves boredom, and kills time while waiting for food. If your child is starting to get too cranky, take him to the bathroom or outside. There, let him unwind a little, and talk to him nicely about acting a little better.

More resources for parents of children and teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism:

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