Sharing time with family over a tasty meal is one of the ways that we get to create a meaningful bond with our loved ones. For many parents, the prospect of loading everyone into the family van for a planned or impromptu meal can be a bit overwhelming. Have no fear! There are some steps you can take to make your next (or first) experience eating out less stressful.
Like with most new activities that you try with your child, a slow immersion is best. Before you go out to dinner, get acquainted with the environment of the restaurant where you have a reservation. Try to replicate the restaurant’s environmental elements during your dinner at home. For example, play some music, invite guests over for dinner, and encourage conversations. This can help prepare your child for the restaurant experience and reduce future stress.
When you decide to start eating out with your child, you should begin with a small outing to a nearby cafe or eat in at a fast food chain. This will give you the opportunity to leave quickly, should your child have a meltdown or express distress. These are also less formal settings, so you can practice public etiquette with your child. When your child is ready for the change, you can take the next step and sit down at a restaurant for a family meal.
Before you change your family’s dining scene, you can help prepare your child with autism by talking about your upcoming trip to the restaurant. If you know what specific restaurant you want to sit down at, you can print out menus ahead of time and look at their different meal options with your child. Try picking your meals out ahead of time.
You can help reduce your child’s stress by showing him/her pictures of the inside and outside of the restaurant that you will be visiting. Typically you’ll find these pictures on Yelp or on the restaurant’s website. You can even call in advance to speak with the owner or manager about your upcoming visit. In all likelihood, they will be happy to show you a warm welcome and accommodate your family’s needs during your meal.
Making reservations ahead of time and requesting seating at a specific location in the building can make the dining experience even better. Don’t be afraid to ask the restaurant staff questions ahead of time, like where a “safe zone” might be for your child, should he/she need a space to reset.
Make it Your Own
Children with ASD tend to respond positively to set routines in their schedule; why not make eating out a fun routine for your family? When you discover your family’s favorite restaurants, you can help your child become more familiar and comfortable with these specific spots. Make the experience more routine by sitting at the same table, ordering the same meals, and/or requesting the same server. If your family frequents a small, locally owned restaurant, perhaps you can approach the owner or manager to as kfi your child can approach the kitchen area. It’s a great opportunity for your child to become fully acquainted with space, meet new people, and practice social skills.
Going out to eat with your child doesn’t need to be scary. This new experience can offer unexpected, instructive moments and opportunities that can help your child grow and gain new confidence.