Eat Out - Even With An Autistic Child

Do you avoid eating out because you have a child with autism, and it's just too stressful to take him to a restaurant? We have some tips to help you avoid some common headaches when dining out at a restaurant with an autistic child.

(In the comments section below the article, please share your tried-and-true advice for managing meals out with an autistic or other special needs child! Other parents will appreciate the help.)

Boy with autism eating out at a restaurant

Pretty much everyone loves to be treated to a restaurant meal once in awhile. But when you're the parent (or grandparent) to an autistic child, dining out can sometimes be more hassle than it's worth -- for you, your child, and the people at the restaurant. But avoid it no longer! Here we offer some suggestions to deal with some of the most common issues parents face.

Problem: Your autistic child has a hard time with change/visiting new places

There are various ways to help prepare your child for dining out. You can start with these baby steps:

Autism - experience, advice, awareness

  • Practice the whole "eating out" experience at home first. Demonstrate reviewing a menu, ordering, coloring or enjoying another quiet pastime during the wait -- and remind him that it's important to stay in his seat.
  • Have a rehearsal at a low-stakes establishment: a fast food place or salad bar/buffet establishment. Yes, the experience is a little different, but will help pave the way toward managing a meal at a typical restaurant.
  • Visit a sit-down restaurant just after opening or during their slowest hours, so any problems you encounter are witnessed by as few people as possible. Consider staying only for a single course, maybe either appetizers or dessert.

Once your child (and you!) have mastered these steps, it's time for the litmus test: dining out at a real restaurant.

>> Read more: When autism is family: What it's like living with an autistic child

When you're ready for the dining out adventure to begin, keep these suggestions in mind:

    1. If your child needs time to mentally prepare for a restaurant outing, let him know the plans as soon as they're set.

    1. Anticipate and explain changes if a place has been remodeled or you're going to another restaurant location of the same chain.

    1. Bring along food from home if needed, as well as any favorite toys, games or books.

    1. Have your kids use the bathroom before leaving the house so you can hopefully avoid grappling with the public restroom rules (or, worse -- a toilet aversion issue).

    1. Head off any problems at the pass by choosing a restaurant renowned for fast service (or at the very least, tell the server you're in a rush).

    1. Consider letting the server know of your child's special needs -- perhaps in the context of asking for speedy service, or to help explain why your son is completely ignoring the question, "So what would you like to drink, young man?"

    1. Stay at your child's side every moment -- and be sure not to get so caught up in the amazing nachos or a great conversation that you forget to pay attention to what he or she is doing. Autistic kids may not think twice about leaning over and swiping a few fries from the guy at the next table, or staring down the teenager in a nearby booth.

  1. Don't wait until juice has been spilled all over your pants before asking that your child's drink be served in a kiddie cup with a lid.

NEXT: When there's too much stimulation for the autistic child, impatience and fussy eaters

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Comments on "Taking your autistic child to a restaurant: Tips on dining out for families living with autism"

Ashley January 15, 2014 | 9:48 AM

I am a mental health professional and work with children with ASDs. Autistic child is not an appropriate term to use. It's a child with autism. The child has a disorder called autism, the child is not the disorder. Please change your site. Thank you

Carol July 10, 2013 | 12:18 PM

These are some really helpful tips for parents of children with autism because many don't realize what a challenge it can be. I think it's important for the parents and for the children as well to be able to take part in normal activities without being singled out.

Lesley Needham December 27, 2012 | 3:17 PM

I have 4 boys with autism (4, 7, 9, 9) and they are the joy of my life. We eat out once a week. We go to the same venue and sit at the same table each time. The place has a kid's play room so when they are feeling bored they can go play and then come back for their meals. It is one of the highlights of their week and they always ask to go. If I take them anywhere else I just pack ipads and headphones for them so they can watch movies when bored or to block out the noise.

Kate June 17, 2012 | 10:25 PM

What an awful title for this article. "Eat Out - Even With An Autistic Child" is like saying "Eat Out - Even With This Awful Burden". Perhaps something simpler like "Eating Out With An Autistic Child" would suffice and is much less offensive and wouldn't make the child with Autism in my life sound like some horrible thing we have to drag around everywhere and make accommodations for. Think before you publish. WOW.

Della November 24, 2011 | 1:19 AM

I'm not easily impressed. . . but that's ipmerssing me! :)

JDalzell May 11, 2009 | 10:40 AM

My daughter has Pervasive Development Disorder and does not like to eat or sit still. The best way to keep her happy at the table (other than soda) in a restaurant is having her play Nintendo DS/Gameboy. It usually works for about 20 minutes until she is ready to escape from the table and when she can't get away, she starts to scream, hit and throw a tantrum. Although we keep trying to make adjustments, we have never gotten past these episodes. After seven years, I think I am finally ready to admit defeat!

Paul K November 20, 2008 | 12:18 PM

We have a 10 y/o daughter with ASD and eat out with some frequency. We use a lot of the techniques suggested in the article and a couple more. One of our daughter's peculiarities is the need to be first when ordering or serving. Another is when she says something to the wait staff and they don't respond (i.e. busy or don't hear her). This was quite a problem when she was younger (and still is somewhat). She would literally melt down if the waitress didn't acknowledge her saying "thank you" by saying "your welcome". To overcome this, we used a lot of pre-prompting - "what are you going to do if you aren't first" and also Carol Grey's social story format. This worked very well for the "thank you - you're welcome" problem. We've also been lucky in that we live in a city neighborhood with a lot of local family restaurants where we are "regulars". This helps because generally the wait staff know our daughter and her ways so are willing and able to accomodate her. It also helped that we could literally go home for a minute if she needed a break and still finish the meal. This experience has enabled her to deal with most other restaurant situations, like when we are travelling, since eating out is a familiar situation. However, it can still be quite an adventure. My main suggestion is to find a local place and become regulars so both your child and the staff know what to expect.

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