Everyone enjoys a dinner out at a restaurant at some point in a busy schedule. It can be a relaxing time and an opportunity for children to practice manners and social skills. For a family with a child on the autism spectrum, dining out can be more stressful than many parents want to deal with.
ASD children do not easily deal with changes in routine. They don’t adapt quickly to new settings and do not quickly process all the information they aren’t used to assaulting their senses. Their reactions to all the new or out of their comfort zone changes can overstimulate them and cause a variety of negative reactions.
Noise is one big issue in restaurants. Noise comes from dishes and cutlery being placed, used, and cleared. Chairs scrape floors. Conversations fly among other patrons whose voices and prosody are unknown. Doors are opening and closing. There are sudden changes in noise levels These and vehicle noises can all add to overstimulation.
Visual overstimulation is a second issue. Someone is always moving about in a restaurant. Servers are taking orders, then delivering food and beverages. People are moving to and from tables. People are coming in and going out. Restaurant upholstery and carpets often have bright colors. Menus feature shiny photos of food. Walls display bright artwork and items. The colors may even be garish in child centered eateries. While these marketing tools help businesses speed up patron turnover, they can be devastating to an ASD child.
Smells are a third issue. No restaurant smells like home, and ASD kids often are smell sensitive. Mixed food smells permeate the air. Many may be from foods unknown to the child. Body smells, perfume, second hand smoke from clothing, lingering cleaning product smells, and other stimulants can affect the child.
Textures from upholstery, menus, table tops, napkins, silverware, and dishes can all be different from home, too. Even if a smooth surface is patterned, an ASD child can perceive it as a textural surface, such as a border decoration around a plate, or a patterned table top. Food textures vary, too.
Restaurant food probably won’t taste like home cooking either. In addition to a different texture from home cooked foods, restaurants often over or under spice foods, especially with salt. Children often choose foods by sight, and the taste reality may be far different from the perceived taste. Food temperature can also vary.
Find a website for the restaurant a few days ahead if possible. Look at it with your child. Talk about the outside, where you may park, where the door is, the landscaping, and other features. Many restaurants have visual tours of the dining spaces. Go over the location of major features, such as where the restrooms are, the kitchen, the salad bar, etc. Drive past the restaurant a couple days before you go. Discuss that this is the place where you will have dinner on a specific day.
Call ahead and ask for seating in a quiet area at a specific time. Many restaurants take reservations or call ahead times. You may even want to go alone and talk to management to arrange a special setting.
Create a story board with your child. Write about or draw each step. From getting ready to driving to arriving and getting seated. You may be able to see a menu online or borrow one from the eatery. Help your child pre-select or narrow down food choices. Talk about table manners and practice them at home. Include thank you’s to the server and host. Finish your story either after you come home or ahead, including some “what if” options in case something unusual happens.
Bring some familiar items for the child to play with while waiting. Many restaurants have crayons and paper as part of a children’s menu. Some have Etch a Sketches or puzzles. While new items may be fun for some kids, ASD kids may need the familiarity of comfort items from home. Invent games while waiting. Count boys vs., girls, people with blonde hair, etc. Take your child for a walk. There may be a desert case to look at, or a fish tank or lobster tank.
Books, small video games, an iPad and phone apps can keep a child occupied, too. Check out http://www.modelmekids.com/iphone-app-autism.html for lots of links and ideas for ASD kids.
Avoid peak times at restaurants when waiting and movement are at the height. Don’t go when your chid is very hungry, over tired or ill. You want the restaurant experience as positive as possible so it will be something to look forward to in the future.
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