Some thoughts on taking a child with autism to a restaurant

eating outOne of the harder things about having a child with Autism is dealing with the public. Whether it’s having to explain to other people, dealing with the judging stares or just giving up on the public entirely (no more eating out)… it’s a very hard situation to have to face.

Some people learn how to ignore the glares, cope with the meltdowns, avoid the meltdowns or how to accept that they just can’t go out any more. Others do not and constantly feel a heavy weight on them with which ever situation they find themselves in.

News stories such as this one don’t help matters. First, we recognize that society simply isn’t ready as most people don’t have the patience to tolerate a screaming child and second, it instills fear into other parents. They’ll be much more unlikely to take their child out for fear of suffering a similar embarrassment.

This post won’t have it’s normal, natural flow to it as I’m just going to give some random thoughts on this topic as well as, what I hope, are some useful tips.

Why do they have a meltdown?

With Autism comes a whole host of problems, such as social anxiety, fear of the unknown, sensory overload (patrons talking, kitchen noises, background music, air conditioner, bad lighting, smells from the kitchen, etc, etc, etc) and several other issues that may or may not be common for Autistic children.

You add that all up and it’s not a matter of if the child will have a meltdown, it’s when.

Taking a child out of their routine and out of their comfort zone is often enough to do it but when you add in everything else in a restaurant, it’s a recipe for disaster.

It’s not hard to figure out why a meltdown is likely to happen. The tricky parts involve knowing what specifically will be the final straw and also in anticipating the meltdown and either avoiding it or being ready to deal with it quickly.

First of all, do not be embarrassed unless they’re right

If people judge you to be a bad parent or mutter things about proper discipline… unless those things are true, you have absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about. Your child has Autism and is genuinely in a great deal of pain and fear, those people not only have no place to speak but they’re dead wrong. Therefore, why should you feel embarrassed?

You can feel bad about how society is or feel bad about having disturbed people but don’t feel embarrassed.

Start smaller than small

Like everything else, outings take practice. They just may take more practice for an Autistic child than for others.

Start in your own house. Put on some music while you eat, have your children be in the kitchen while you cook. Invite some family over and have a dinner where everyone talks at once… but be sure they’re all in on it so they know when to tone it down.

A few of these (the amount of duration dependent on your child) and you should be ready for an outing! But, maybe not to DisneyLand yet.

First, go to the corner store, a department store… just places with people. And when you’re ready for a sit down, start small again with a diner or cafe.

There are less people, less sensory issues and if something does go wrong… there’s less people to annoy and an easier out.

Most importantly, don’t be disappointed at the failed attempts. They’re not failures. They’re practice runs. You may find yourself leaving before you’re done your meal but 2 or 3 attempts and you’ll find yourself leaving before dessert. A few more times later, you’ll be leaving during dessert… and finally, leaving after the food is done.

From there, you’re not done… you move up to a bigger restaurant.

It’s practice… it’s a slow process… it’s not “normal” or what others will tell you is “normal” but you know what? It will get you there.

Every good plan needs an escape route

For all those practice runs and even for the finished product, you need an escape route. A way out if things do go south.

It’s up to you to plan it but try to keep things in mind like, how can the child get out to the car quickly and safely and still have the bill paid? With 2 parents, this is easy enough. If you’re a single parent, you may need to prepare some more. Maybe let the waiter/host know the situation and if you need a quick out, to be ready for you.

Don’t take it for granted. A quick out can mean a much less difficult time for the rest of the day where as a child that feels trapped in there might not recover… meaning rough behavior and even a tough bed time that night.

Even adults with their Autism completely under control still feel a meltdown coming on sometimes and need to know they can get out of there as quickly as possible.

Remember, they’re not bad people

In the news article posted above, the business owner asked that the people leave because they were disturbing other people. The initial reaction to this is disgust because it’s not the child’s fault and people really should be more tolerant.

However, at the same time, you need to realize that this person is running a business where his customers expect a nice quiet atmosphere to enjoy their breakfast. The article doesn’t state how many screams or for how long they lasted but it truly is entirely possible that he was disturbing other people.

Whether the business owner was aware the child had special needs or not is not the issue. It’s a matter of common decency. It’s just about being nice to others.

The others could have and should have been nicer to the mother and her child, understanding that he’s not wanting to bother anyone but also, the mother needs to understand that intentional or not, it is disruptive and forcing everyone else to endure it is not all that kind.

And to pressure the business owner to have to choose between one disruptive customer and the rest that are being disturbed is not fair to him.

This is where the escape routes come into play. If your child is not stopping, if you may be bothering others… use that escape route, go do something else and try again another day. It’s called practice for a reason.

If it’s just not going to happen, don’t despair

All the tips and practice in the world just won’t do it sometimes. Unfortunately, not every child is the same and that means that not every child is going to be able to cope with restaurants.

Find yourself a babysitter, get some respite… what ever you need, if you need your restaurant meals sometimes. Otherwise, save your money and eat in.

Your child will not miss out on life by not going into a restaurant to eat.  It’s unfortunate and I can sympathize but remember, you are sparing your child from actual fears, anxieties and even pain.

Sensory overload is a very serious problem that can be much worse than torture.

Your child isn’t just being a bad kid while out, they’re in pain. And you not going out really is for the best.

We’re all in different situations

We’ve either done well or not or we’ve had to give up… it’s a hard road either which way and we have reasons for being where we’re at. When we see others do something differently, it’s natural for us to question it or tell them they’re doing something wrong.

The truth is though that not every child will do well with practice, not every child should be kept home because of one bad outing.

Don’t feel bad, don’t feel embarrassed. Always have an escape route and do what you feel is best for your child.

About Stuart Duncan

My name is Stuart Duncan, creator of http://www.stuartduncan.name. My oldest son (Cameron) has Autism while my younger son (Tyler) does not. I am a work from home web developer with a background in radio. I do my very best to stay educated and do what ever is necessary to ensure my children have the tools they need to thrive. I share my stories and experiences in an effort to further grow and strengthen the online Autism community and to promote Autism Understanding and Acceptance.

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19 Responses to Some thoughts on taking a child with autism to a restaurant

  1. Angel G July 19, 2011 at 11:10 pm #

    Great post! I’m on both sides of this issue. Yes we all have the right to go out to restaurants. But we also should respect other people’s right to a quiet meal.
    I’m not talking about McDonald’s or any place that has a playground. We expect those places to be loud. But the odd time my husband and I go out for a ‘date night’ and spend $50 for a meal, I want to be able to relax.
    With two boys on the spectrum, we did a lot of ‘play restaurants’. We practiced how to eat, not kick, not scream etc. And it took a long time. Then it was practicing at relatives’ houses. We also knew that the children were just too young to be going to ‘sit down’ restaurants – they just weren’t ready.
    After years of practicing, we tried it. It was for a family breakfast (mornings are their best time). And they did great. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to go to restaurants all the time – but it’s nice to know that once in a while, we can.

  2. sherrie August 22, 2011 at 5:30 pm #

    we would take our son to places to eat people stare but i explain he is austic .they look at us like we are crazy well i don`t let it bother me .he is now 28 and doing great i just don`t care what people think

  3. Anna August 22, 2011 at 5:32 pm #

    My children are 12 and 14yrs of age. They were 3 and 5 when diagnosed. My genuine advise is not to hurry the “restaurant” visits. As a parent you will feel alot of anxiety already and they sense it. We have to learned to cope and handle our children expressing themselves in public Both of you will learn with time and maybe behavioral therapy how to cope with outburst. My husband and I are firm and let them know where we are going and what we expect. If they are expressing too much anxiety we take a raincheck. REMEMBER try not to STRESS yourself out. Your calm and happy they are too…

  4. Amy Trail August 22, 2011 at 5:37 pm #

    Amazing that we just got back from our first successful eating out and this was the first thing I read.

    I so agree — start small and allowing my son to learn to tolerate everything around him in small doses has made all the differnce in the world. Five years ago WE could not handle it; he was so over stimulated and I was so ill equiped at that time to handle the public and him but in time with repeated small trips with different people has finally allowed us SUCCESS!

  5. Nanci August 22, 2011 at 5:46 pm #

    Thanks for this posting. I can so relate to this situation. We avoided going out to eat at all costs!!! My son has always had oral aversions to food textures. He would gag and vomit when tasting/trying foods and even sometimes the smells would set him off. He is now 8 years old and he has been going to OT for the last 3 years. Thanks to his OT he has been expanding his foods and within the last year we have been able to go out once in a while and sit down(me anyway…he has a difficult time sitting still) and have a meal without him gagging and vomiting! I really never have let his not being able to sit down and his constant moving around bother me in anyway. He has to do it and I am more than willing to let anyone know why. We can’t expect people to understand if we don’t make people aware. It’s not enough to just “not care” what people think..we have to let others know that “you have the right to eat here or there as do or(we). It just so happens that my son(daughter) has an ASD(autism spectrum disorder).” I did find the gagging/vomiting thing to be very disgusting especially while trying to eat! I could not subject ANYONE else to that! Autism Awareness, Acceptance, and Understanding! It’s not enough to just be aware! =)

  6. Crystal Mays August 22, 2011 at 5:48 pm #

    I admit that it took some time to get where we are now on dinning out. My son was 2 when he was diagnosied with Autism.
    I would cry every evening that we went out to eat because with having two other children around the same age then a child with Autism it was hard. But I never gave up. My parents and Family continued to take him out to eat and ut has gotten so much better. My advice would be to pray and leave in God’s hand and he will take care of the rest be sure to ask him for guidance and patiences.

  7. Kristy Johnson August 22, 2011 at 5:51 pm #

    This story is soooooo true. I work with children that have special needs. These children are awesome! Yes they do have meltdowns. Some have meltdowns that last all day. At times it can be frustrated because you dont know whats wrong. I also babysat for a family with a child that has autism. We did take him out to eat on several occasions. I have to admit, he acted better than my children. He ate his meal and waited on everyone else to finish.There were times when we werent eating out that he threw a tantrum. He was and is the sweetest child. I have been working at my job for 13yrs and the children there are TRULLY a blessing from God!!!

  8. Laurel McSki August 22, 2011 at 6:04 pm #

    We have a 13 year old daughter with autism. She was diagnosed at age 4. I noticed she’d spend most of her time holding her ears, instead of eating and her meltdowns were usually from hunger.

    I bought a pair of Peltor ear protectectors (like they wear on air fields) off Amazon and we let her wear those inside restaurants. She seems so much happier with these on, and actually enjoys her meals.

  9. Debbi August 22, 2011 at 6:14 pm #

    I follow the same guidelines as any parent would with a small child in a restaurant. I gauge his mood and frequent family friendly restaurants. I’ll usually go a bit earlier than the height of meal time, so our wait time is less for meals. Since my 3yr old is autistic, I don’t mind sitting near the kitchen or other noisy area so any repetitive noises he might make aren’t as noticeable. I usually don’t take him to any place nice (where you have to leave a tip) unless I am with someone else and with the standing rule that if my son gets upset, I take him out and my meal is ‘to go’. I will often bring a small travel toy with me so he is preoccupied. Usually he is very well behaved and patient.

  10. Stefanie Lombardo August 22, 2011 at 6:33 pm #

    I appreciate the post and the sentiment. Eating out is one of my son’s favorite things to do. It has also been the source of some of his worst meltdowns. We try many preemptive steps to avoid a meltdown including bringing items to occupy him, small snacks to munch in case the pace of the meal is too slow for him and often giving him the opportunity to choose the restaurant. If we see his behavior escalating, we get the wait staff and ask for our bill and to go boxes, even if the main course hasn’t reached our table yet! If necessary, one of us takes him to the car while the other packs up our now take out meal. We realize there are other patrons in the restaurant who did not come for a tantrum dinner show, so we try to be respectful of this. That is not to say we do not allow our son the freedom to be himself while at a restaurant. He is 13 now and growing :), but still likes to sing at times or bounce in his seat or walk around and observe each ceiling fan before we are seated. As with all things autism, it’s a balancing act, and one that each family has to define for themselves.

  11. Jody Seward August 22, 2011 at 8:46 pm #

    We have always taken our son out…we always removed him if he could not keep himself in control…at 13 years old we know what,where,when,why and how…so sometimes we have to change our plans…I would do anything for my Bud. This article is great always love to read and learn from others Thanks sending out the love to all Jody and John

  12. jcdmom August 22, 2011 at 10:17 pm #

    Taking our son out to eat has been a rough time. He is 12 now and the Waiting on the food is too long. I always have paper crayons pens and pencils. We draw play games and the wait is easier for him.
    If he does have a meltdown I take him outside and just walk. He comes back and the food is ready. He will be ok.

    Good idea to tell the waitress. I have never told them.

  13. Barbara August 22, 2011 at 10:47 pm #

    I understand this very well. My son Jason (now 20) was diagnosed at 2.5 years old as PDD/Autism.

    I had met some parents who would ask me “How do you go out with him?” I replied, “Jason has to adapt to my lifestyle not me to his.” And stood away from anyone who would bring me down.

    I have another son who wanted to go out so there was no way I would not attend to his need as well, so what I did was went to small restaurants for lunch on the weekends. I sat at the table that was furthest away from the door, always asked for a table in a corner.

    I would start by handing Jason toys, I let him played with the sugar packages, salt etc. When the waiter would come to the table I would explain Jason’s anxiety and that I would clean up before leaving.

    I would allow him to walk alone (if the restaurant was not full and I always asked the waiter to bring out the childrens food first. If someone would stare at us I would explain to them about Jason.

    I applied this to the movies as well, and with A LOT of patience and not being embarrassed at ALL, I was able to teach him to sit through a meal and a movie. It took a while but I do suggest that parents try first at smaller cafes and work their way up.

    But most of all don’t ever be embarrassed about your child and do explain to people who stare, this also helps. Yes there will be time when some people just don’t care, but that to me was their problem, because as a mother I knew I had to do everything i colud to get Jason to adapt to my routine.

    Today he is 20th, he is a senior and this year will be in a program at Baptisst Hospital that will teach him how to work.

  14. Lorraine La Pointe August 23, 2011 at 12:13 am #

    In our early days of the ’tism. We all used to wear t-shirts that said “Keep staring I might do a trick”.
    I think it would be smart to start a “autism friendly directory”. I could put a few different places up.

  15. alg August 23, 2011 at 8:50 am #

    First of all, I think Lorraine’s “autism friendly directory” is a great idea. I would be happy to contribute if something comes of it. My email is included in my info on this comment. Please let me know if you hear anything about this project coming to fruition.
    Second, as the parent of an autistic child, I have obviously experienced the same phenomenon. I write a column for Dormont-Brookline (PA) Patch and used my first column to address this very issue.
    It was astoundingly well-received & I got the most comments I’ve ever received on a piece — many apologizing for judgmental behavior in the past.
    I think awareness is our only hope.
    I invite you to read my column & pass it along. The more we inform, the more our kids benefit.
    http://dormont-brookline.patch.com/articles/mean-girl-and-the-bad-mom
    I don’t know if it’ll “hot link” — but I really think it’s worth the copy & paste into your browser bar if not 🙂
    Good luck in the future. I really appreciated your piece and will continue to check in on your blog.

  16. debi says August 23, 2011 at 9:38 am #

    the only thing that will stop my son having a melt down when we go out to eat is his D,S HAND HELD GAME,that keeps him focused till his food arrives then,i take it of him to eat his food and give it back when he has finished eating,we dont know he is their then he is so well behaved they just need something to focus on

  17. Anne August 23, 2011 at 10:00 pm #

    I agree, quick, family friendly places are a good way to begin acclimating kids to restaurants. For us it was all about keeping our son occupied during waiting times to head off the epic meltdowns. Walks and tag teaming helped us both get to eat–usually. We also asked the server for the check when or even before the food was delivered, because they would often forget about us after the food came. And yes, God bless the inventor of the Gameboy and the DS! Our son, now 17, is a foodie. Loves ethnic restaurants, spicy foods and is a Top Chef fanatic.

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