Dining Out Tips for Autism Families

Whether your family is eating at McDonald’s or dining at a white tablecloth restaurant, manners are a must. Appropriate behavior varies depending on the venue, but all children –neurotypical or on the spectrum—need to learn to express themselves respectfully and politely.Very young children can be taught to say please and thank you (if they’re verbal). Making the best of ASD kids’ love of routine, these words can easily become part of a rigid, yet positive habit. Even ASD kids who may not understand why these words are essential can still memorize them. For less verbal or more introverted kids, a sweet smile can substitute for language or make a good start. My ASD daughter added a big smile to her (sometimes unusual) requests, and not only charmed waiters into bringing her soda without ice, but also often received an extra cookie or dessert. What could be a better reward for choosing good manners?

Teaching etiquette starts at home so every meal is an opportunity to work with your child. All children should learn to use silverware and be reasonably adept with utensils before going to a restaurant (unless you’re eating chicken fingers at McDonalds). At the very least, if Mom or Dad cuts their food, children with autism should be able to manage a fork. Be sure to model patience, polite requests, and the all-important “thank you.” Enlist siblings and grandparents whenever possible.

When going out to eat, make sure your child is not over hungry. Either schedule your restaurant meal for a time that’s comfortable for your children or offer a small snack. Yes, I’m suggesting a snack right before dinner! It’s a much better alternative than a starving, irritable child. Further, patience is required whether waiting on line cafeteria style or seated for fine dining. Playing games can help. If you’re at a fast food restaurant that’s not so fast, selecting the best line to wait on can be one game. Have fun discussing how quickly each line moves, rooting for your own line and remarking on the progress of others—much like watching a slow motion horse race.

If you’re seated at a fancy restaurant, try word games. One favorite in our family was “What Doesn’t Belong? A. Fork, B. Knife, C. Plate and D. Spoon.” Ask your child to explain the reason for their choice. For older children, use more complex categories (like geography and transportation vehicles). Also encourage them to make up their own multiple choice questions for you. It’s fun to discover that there may be more than one “correct” answer, depending on the reasons offered.

Sometimes a child on the spectrum may insist on sitting in a particular seat. My daughter always wanted to sit next to Mom, and for a while nobody cared. But eventually my son got jealous so my daughter needed to learn how to take turns. If possible, discuss turn taking before going out to eat. (I learned this the hard way!) Also if a family member feels hurt or left out, the child with autism needs to learn how to take the other person’s feelings into account. My husband felt rejected by our daughter’s fierce desire to only sit next to me. Here it’s necessary to teach empathy. Role play is one method. Ask your child: “How would YOU feel if …?”

Navigating the menu is next. If your ASD kid tries to order something you know they won’t like, intervene. Explain why they won’t like it—color, texture, sauce, etc. Encourage them to modify their order (sauce on the side) or suggest other menu choices. Help your kids on the spectrum order food they’ll enjoy in appropriate portions, without over ordering, and encourage them to taste something new from your plate. If your children don’t eat as much as you think they should, avoid turning food into a battleground. Kids will eventually eat when they’re hungry. My son once fasted two and a half days in protest for being grounded (while still drinking gallons of Coke). He eventually scarfed down a hamburger and fries (while still grounded).

Nowadays families wrestle with the issue of technology at the table. In my opinion, if a young ASD child is unable to participate in family conversation, it’s OK to let them use a gadget for a while. Negotiate in advance when technology is acceptable at the table and when it must be put away. Every family will have a different tolerance level. Neurotypical siblings—especially if they’re older— should be expected to turn off cell phones and iPads and participate in discussions, acting as role models.

Should you allow your ASD child to go to the restroom alone when nature calls? Much depends on their developmental level. Only you can assess their ability to navigate the restaurant or remember to wash their hands. If you’re familiar with the venue and the bathroom is reasonably close, you might feel comfortable allowing them to go alone. Obviously, in less familiar, more crowded places, you’ll want to make sure your child is accompanied. In general, empower your ASD kids by encouraging them to be as independent and safe as possible. Also prepare your child for bumping into adult friends at restaurants. Teach them how to say a brief hello and exchange pleasantries, without intruding on someone else’s evening.

When it’s time for dessert in our family, we allow one per customer. Any meltdowns over this issue result in early departure and no dessert for anyone. Once your children understand this routine, they’re very likely to cooperate. It took close to a decade for my daughter to learn how to behave politely in restaurants, so never give up!

Marguerite Elisofon is a New York City writer and the author of My Picture Perfect Family <http://margueriteelisofon.com/book> , a memoir about how her family navigated life with a child on the autistic spectrum before the internet and support groups existed. She also blogs about parenting young adults and disability related issues in The Never Empty Nest . Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including: Time, NY Metro Parents Magazine, Ability, and Autism Parenting magazine. Her family’s story has been featured by the NY Post, Fox News, The Daily Mail, and on Jenny McCarthy’s Dirty Sexy Funny radio show. A Vassar graduate, Marguerite was born and raised in New York City, where she still lives with her husband, Howard, in their mostly-empty nest. She is available to speak about a wide variety of issues relating to autism, parenting, and twins. Marguerite also offers private consultations <http://margueriteelisofon.com/ask-an-autism-mom>  to families struggling with autism issues.