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

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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