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: 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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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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