Julie Green: The Other Side of the Coin


Tips For Eating Out With A Special Needs Child

Whining, dining, and Surviving

autism restaurant

Heading off a tantrum is bad enough at home, but when you go out to dinner with a child on the spectrum, you go armed with lots of blind faith and a nest of bunnies up your sleeve. Even typical kids can struggle in a restaurant setting. The usual preparations apply double so with kids who have extra needs.

If your child has had a busy or scheduled day, resist the urge to go out. (Conversely, if you have dinner reservations, make sure to keep your child's afternoon as low-key as possible.) The ensuing sensory overload could be the proverbial straw on the camel's back. Disappointing as it is for parents and other siblings, sometimes you have to weigh up whether you want to eat out so badly that it's worth potentially enduring a public meltdown. In my experience, most people will be understanding, and most children will be grateful to eat takeout in the oasis of their home.

It goes without saying that the child should not be ravenous. Have him eat a small snack to tie him over either before you arrive at the restaurant or while you wait. It also goes without saying that you don't take him to a posh place. I'm not saying you have to settle for Swiss Chalet every time (not that there's anything wrong with that!). But out of respect for others, I wouldn't take my son somewhere I'd go for a precious date night, either. 

Many restaurants provide crayons, but if your child—like mine—isn't interested in colouring, pack small, Happy Meal-type toys reserved for such occasions so their novelty appeal remains. While I know lots of people frown upon using tablets in a restaurant, I swear by mine. Particularly for kids with autism, screen time is one of the best reinforcers and distractions, again provided it is otherwise limited. As for those who balk at this idea... If people witnessed the Tasmanian devil-like alternative, I believe they would happily hand my son an iPad before or after his meal.

But what happens when despite your small arsenal of preventive tactics, your child completely loses their shit? Well, speaking from numerous experiences, the answer depends. Some incidences are recoverable; some are not. It's always judgment call. In some cases all it takes is a well-timed breather in the washroom—e.g. when my son starts screaming at the top of his lungs. If the meltdown escalates or continues, it's time to cut your losses, signal for the bill and a doggy bag. 

For one mom, though, the solution wasn't to remove her son from the situation, but to educate the world around her. Leah Lance was out for a birthday dinner at a steakhouse in her hometown of Kincardine. After her autistic son screamed and cried, a party of four made some hurtful comments to Lance then asked to be moved to a different section of the restaurant. 

What Lance did next was unexpected. She apologized to staff, bought a round of drinks for the diners and asked the server to provide them with the following note:
Please understand that some situations can be difficult for my child. Children with autism can often behave in an unpredictable manner because they find it hard to cope with everyday situations. Please be patient." At the footer of the note was a link for the Autism Society of Canada.
While everyone has a right to eat out in public—even kids with special needs—people also have a right to a (relatively) peaceful environment when eating out. While I don't apologize for my son's condition and the sometimes unpleasant behaviour that accompanies it, I do try to be respectful of other diners. After all, they could be me... on date night...
What are your strategies for managing meal time in a restaurant?
Image credit: Flickr | Mr. T in DC