I have stopped going to restaurants with my child. He doesn’t eat what’s on the menu. He doesn’t sit at the table and usually causes a scene. What can I do to make going out to dinner a family event?
Restaurants require children with autism to negotiate a variety of visual, auditory, and olfactory information. Selecting appropriate food choices, waiting for food to be delivered, and maintaining appropriate behavior at the table pose significant challenges to a successful visit. Successful restaurant visits depend on selecting appropriate goals. Your goals for your first restaurant visit will differ from your long-term goals. Start with small goals (with which your child is likely to be successful) and work towards more difficult goals. For example, you may start visiting restaurants to have a single appetizer in the afternoon and then work toward a full meal during dinner time.
Visiting restaurants takes practice. Select a restaurant that you can visit several times. Children with autism often acquire skills in a familiar environment and then are able to generalize those skills to new environments. Some restaurants provide a more relaxed atmosphere. I caution you against selecting a restaurant in which peanut shells are thrown on the floor. Social models of people throwing food items on the floor may result in other food items being thrown on the floor. Your child also may generalize food throwing to other restaurants in which this is not a common practice.
There are a few strategies that can be employed to increase the likelihood of a successful restaurant visit. The first strategy involves timing. Restaurants are less crowded Monday- Wednesday evening or from 2pm-4pm (between the lunch and dinner rushes). Visiting a restaurant at a quiet time will reduce the amount of stimuli a child must tolerate and the amount of time you will wait for a table and food delivery. Some restaurants will make special accommodations if you call ahead and explain that your child cannot yet wait to be seated at a table. You may be able to put in a food order for your child when ordering drinks so that their food arrives with appetizers.
A second strategy involves food selection. Decide whether or not your child will be expected to eat items listed on the menu. Many restaurant menus are available online. You can print the menu, review it with your child, add PECS, and make a menu choice before you arrive at the restaurant. If your child can make a request from the server, then you can practice that social exchange before going to the restaurant. If your child cannot eat items on the menu, then you may wish to call the restaurant and ask if something can be prepared that your child can eat. You may wish to explain that you would like to bring your child their own “snack” due to food restrictions.
The most challenging aspect of visiting restaurants for many children with autism is waiting. When children are not eating they must be engaged in an alternative activity. If children are not engaged, then interfering behavior (e.g. tantrum, yelling, stereotypy) is likely to occur. It is important to set reasonable expectations of engagement. Many families have found success by bringing a bag of activities to the restaurant that can be performed at a table. These activities can be used at any point during the restaurant visit that requires your child to wait. These activities may include books, walkmans, coloring books, puzzles, handheld games, portable DVD players, and visual cause and effect toys (e.g. ooze tubes, cyclones). Alternative activities should be selected that your child has a history of success with and do not generate more noise than you are willing to tolerate in a restaurant. For some children, dinner conversation can be tailored to include some subjects for which the child is able to participate.
Remember that restaurant visiting takes practice. It may take a few practice trips before a child is able to sit down to a full meal. If you have a family goal of visiting a restaurant, then please let your behavior analyst at Birchtree know and we can partner with you in identifying the strategies that are most likely to help your child participate in a family restaurant visit.
Jessie-Sue Milo, BCBA
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