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Dining Out with Children on the Autism Spectrum: 20 Tips for Parents

"How can we keep our son from melting down every other time we attempt to eat out? We've had to leave in the middle of a meal numerous times of late (very embarrassing)."

One of the biggest challenges for parents with an Aspergers (High-Functioning Autism) youngster is going out for dinner at a restaurant. Some children are disturbed by changes in their routine, others can be annoyed by noisy places, and some simply do not like to wait in line.

So, a lot of moms and dads choose to avoid eating out at restaurants – including on their family vacation. However, there are a few tricks that you can use to making dining out with your “special needs” child more enjoyable.

Tips for dining out with your Aspergers and HFA child:

1. Considering eating dinner a bit earlier (e.g., 4:30 pm) when the restaurant is not as crowded.

2. Demonstrate the whole dining out experience at home first. Practice reviewing a menu, ordering, coloring, etc.

3. Give the waiter your credit card up front and tell her you may have to leave early.

4. Leave early even if things are going well. End on a good note by heading home immediately after you take your last bite. Don’t press your luck by staying too long.

5. Rehearse eating out at a low-stake establishment first (e.g., a fast food restaurant, a salad bar/buffet). This will help pave the way toward managing a meal at a nicer restaurant.

6. Look for restaurants with patios so you can sit outside. It’s usually not as crowded outside, and there is a little more space between tables.

7. If you stay in a Hotel that serves food, consider having food delivered to the room, or get takeout and bring it back to the room.

8. Make sure the restaurant can accommodate a diet for kids on the autism spectrum, because as you know, many of these young people have restricted diets (e.g., gluten-free).

9. Have your child use the bathroom before leaving the house so you can possibly avoid giving with the “public restroom rules” speech.

10. One of the most difficult situations for many of these kids is dealing with delays and having to wait. If you face a long wait, break the time into smaller chunks that can be more easily managed by your youngster. For example, you might tell your youngster that you will be waiting for 10 minutes. When that time is up, walk outside for a few minutes, and then return to the waiting area.

11. Visual cues (e.g., setting a timer) help focus the youngster’s attention away from a long wait. Be sure that you have control of the time. It is important to have a good idea of how long a delay you really face. If the wait takes longer than 30 minutes, you may find yourself on the receiving end of a meltdown.

12. Try to locate restaurants that are renowned for fast service. Many Mexican establishments are great for this.

13. Watch for signs of an impending meltdown (e.g., child is holding his head, frowning, getting fidgety, beginning to exhibit “tics” such as rapid eye blinking, etc.). It’s better to leave hungry while the waters are still calm than to risk getting stuck in an emotional storm with all eyes watching.

14. Prepare your youngster for what is going to happen next during the dining experience (e.g., “the waiter will be here shortly to take our order” … “the waiter is getting ready to bring our food” … “we are going to be leaving in about 10 minutes” …and so on).

15. Pay attention to what your son is doing at all times. Younger children on the spectrum don’t think twice about leaning over and stealing a few onion rings from the guy at the next table, or staring-down the teenager in a nearby booth.

16. Strongly consider allowing your child to take a gadget with him into the restaurant – anything to keep him distracted (e.g., toy, handheld video games, etc.).

17. Try to go to places that immediately serve an appetizer (e.g., chips, bread, peanuts, etc.) so your youngster is not waiting for food. Italian restaurants are great for this.

18. Don't wait until Pepsi has been spilled all over your pants before asking that your youngster's drink be served in a “to go” cup with a lid.

19. Prepare ahead of time by using visual schedules and social stories about what the restaurant experience will be like.

20. If you attempt a dining out experience that fails miserably, just leave early and go home. Do not use the trip home as an opportunity to lecture your child. After he has calmed down, talk with your child about what worked, what didn’t, and what everyone can do differently the next time you go out to eat. Rehearse this at home (i.e., play a game called "eating out"). Practice makes perfect – don’t give up!

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

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism


•    Anonymous said... My son is 12. Eating out does have its challenges we have had some awful evenings out but now we always make sure he has his book/kindle with him
Any stressful situation or bad behaviour we just get him to read,
It relaxes and calms him. He escapes into his story and forgets what's around him.
•    Anonymous said... Thanks this was very helpful. We are going on holiday in a few weeks and its useful to have some helpful advice for.meals out or routine changes etc. I will be taking my sand timer with me for little man to use x
•    Anonymous said... The only problem I have when we go out a restaurant is . My son only eats pizza. So we can only go to restaurant that have pizza on the kids menu:(
•    Anonymous said... We dont have as much trouble with the waiting as we do with him getting sick. I guess being in a social environment makes him so nervous he gets sick when we go out.
•    Anonymous said... We just did this last week with my 5 year old. He is one of five children, and second to last. Our mexican resturant knows our situation, so when ever they see us coming they seat us in thier closed section! Its great because it gives me a chance to work with him and also see where he is at, as he gets older. You never know till you try I feel your challenges everyday! Thank you for your page. Its so helpful and nice to know i'm not alone... Good.luck everyone!
•    Anonymous said... Yes, it's our inclination to avoid taking them out, but I feel it's better to keep providing them with outside experiences. It's about preparing them ahead of time. A few days before tell them you are going out to dinner. Tell them where. It's best to go to the same place when possible for a while and then branch out. Remind them of the place. Describe it to them. Prepare them if you think there will be a little wait. Bring something to occupy them. Think about the menu. Download it if you can. Have them circle what they want. We do that with the children's menu placemats. So when the waiter appears they don't have to "remember", they know! They can even point. Repetition, Repetition, Repetition... it's my motto!

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