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

Nancy Price co-founded SheKnows.com in 1999, and now serves as the site's Executive Editor. In the midst of growing several award-winning websites over the past decade, she also served as the editor-in-chief of two national print magazin...

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.

Autistic boy at a restaurant

Problem: Your autistic child doesn't want to eat anything

The majority of kids with autism are super fussy eaters. They don't like anything unless it passes the essential look, feel, smell and taste tests -- and it's a rare morsel indeed that meets even the first two qualifications.

>> Read more: Special diets for special kids: Autism and casein- & gluten-free diets

Don't give up! Here are some things to keep in mind when taking a child with autism to a restaurant, diner or even a cafeteria.

Autism - experience, advice, awareness

    1. Make sure your child is actually hungry. If mealtime is a hassle at the best of times, it will be a nightmare if your son or daughter has no appetite!

    1. Before you head out, make sure there's something on the menu that your child will actually eat (rice, plain noodles, french fries) -- or just bring along food from home for him or her.

    1. When ordering, be very specific if your child has strong preferences. Don't assume that your definition of "plain" is the same as the restaurant's version of the word. Mention things like no garnish, no sauces, no shakes of pepper or herbs, no cheese, no toppings, no butter/oil on noodles and so forth.

    1. Was this meal out unplanned -- and you are therefore unprepared? In a pinch, restaurants will generally have -- at the very least -- saltines and some fruit (often depending on what is used at the bar or as garnish).

    1. You might also want to carry some non-perishable foods your kid will eat in your purse or in a bag in the car.

    1. You can also make a pit stop at a take-out place or grocery store to get something your kid will enjoy eating, and bring that food along to the restaurant with you.

  1. Try not to force the issue of what your child is or is not eating, lest that cause him or her to go into meltdown mode. Really, getting him to eat right now is not worth disrupting your meal -- or those of the other diners.
More tips for fussy eaters:
Healthy recipes for kids: Vegetables in disguise
Lunch ideas for toddlers

When all else fails...

Sometimes there's simply nothing that will work to calm an autistic child -- your kid is D-O-N-E. Always be prepared to take your meal to go. In this case, you might want to employ the two-part exit strategy: One parent/guardian takes your child or children outside or to the car, while whoever's paying or waiting for the takeout boxes hangs back until finished. (Remember to leave a nice tip if your waiter or waitress has dealt admirably with the situation.)

Know when to hold 'em... know when to walk away

Although it certainly is important for your child to learn how to behave in real-world situations out in public, don't force the issue too much. You deserve to enjoy dining out, and the last thing you want to do is make the experience miserable every time. If you work at it -- but don't stress out about it -- in time, everything will all come together. Until then... Thanks for your order, and please pay at the second window.


More info on autism

Autism signs & symptoms, qualities & quirks

Special diets for special kids: Autism and casein- & gluten-free diets

Autism - SheKnows Message Boards

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