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.

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Autistic boy at a restaurant

Problem: A very impatient/restless child with autism

Autistic kids -- like almost all the kids on this planet -- only have so much patience. Sitting and waiting for a table gets boring and frustrating. Your child may want to explore or simply leave -- and will loudly protest being made to sit down until your table is ready. Here are some things you can do:

    1. Avoid restaurants with anything more than a 5-10 minute wait for a table. A good way to manage this feat is to visit restaurants at an off-peak time (such as 4-5 on a weekday afternoon) so you beat the rush.

    1. Since fewer and fewer restaurants are accepting reservations nowadays, find out if the place at least has a "Call ahead" policy. Essentially, you call when you're leaving home, and they put your name on the waiting list -- though this typically only works up to about a half hour in advance. Restaurants that allow call-aheads include Chili's and TGIFridays (in most markets).

    1. Keep things moving. When your server comes to take your drink orders, have your full meal order ready, too. If you're just not quite that ready, do at least mention to the person waiting on your table that you're in a hurry (to speed up service) or explain that your child has autism, and quicker service will help keep the dining experience quieter and less problematic.

    1. Order any of your child's desired refills and second helpings as soon as you realize the need -- don't wait until the cup is empty or the plate is clean. (Sometimes you might want to order two of something in the first place so you can keep the process moving along.)

  1. Once the food is gone, your child will likely want to go home, go to the car -- go anywhere else. So make yourself available to go as soon as you must... just in case. To start, request the check and have the restaurant run your card when the server brings you your main course. (Either at that point or when the meal's actually done, you can leave the cash or sign the credit card receipt. Some people prefer to wait until the last moment before signing and calculating the tip, to ensure that service is good throughout the meal.)

NEXT: Fussy, fussy! When your autistic child won't eat

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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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