This may come as a shock to many out there, but did you know there are autism families who don’t go to restaurants? Yes! Lots of autism families can’t share a meal together out in public. I’ve already blogged about my own restaurant experiences once upon a time; this incident that happened shortly after my son was diagnosed gave me a glimpse into how difficult life was going to be with autism. And, how the public is not very tolerance or forgiving of our kids.
Four years later, my son is higher-functioning and we can pretty much go anywhere. But, that’s because I didn’t stop the Nazi-wearing-tattoo butthead who yelled at my family from deterring me. I kept at it…taking him out to eat as often as possible. It wasn’t easy. It took probably two years of trial and error before we could sit him down in a restaurant without incident.
But, my son’s progress doesn’t help the rest of his autism tribe. I personally know many autism families who just don’t even try to go to restaurants anymore. It’s a shame because our kids cannot and will never learn how to function in society if they’re not apart of it. I’ve said this a million times and I really mean it. We need to get our kids out there!
I want to encourage families to try to get their kids (and adults) out to a restaurant this Mother’s Day. I want them to start viewing the dining experience not with fear and intimidation, but as one of the steps that can help our kids be more included in the world. I’ve put together some tips and I hope you find them helpful. And, remember, never give up.
1. Restaurant Selection — When selecting a restaurant, make a buffet your first choice. Yes, I said ‘buffet,’ so you can just stop turning up your nose. I know most people desire something a bit more upscale for a holiday, but remember it’s about time spent with family, not the number of stars a restaurant has. If you can have an enjoyable meal together that’s more worthy than lobster and foie gras.
If there’s not a buffet in your area, pick a larger chain restaurant where there’s more wiggle room, seating options, and so many people that you won’t be as noticeable. I know families who think smaller restaurants are better and I disagree. The smaller the restaurant the more intimate the atmosphere, and diners are more apt to be uptight about their dining experience, therefore not tolerating autistic behaviors.
2. Reservations — Call ahead for a reservation because you can request a seating selection. Even if it’s a restaurant that doesn’t take reservations, call ahead anyway and request a table. If the restaurant policy is first-come, first-served, you will get whatever table is available at the door, so don’t take that risk.
If you get resistance, speak with the manager. I’ve had my share of bubble-gum-popping-in-the-phone-hostesses at restaurants that didn’t know their arses from a hole in the ground and insisted they wouldn’t take a reservation despite the fact I was coming with a disabled child. I had to tell them about The Americans With Disabilities Act. Then, I got a manager on the phone that assisted and we got the accommodations needed.
3. Seating Selections — Your seating request will depend on the design of the restaurant and what type of tables/rooms are available, but here are a few suggestions:
a) A booth in a corner with a high back for privacy. Some of the younger kids may try to climb over it, so be prepared…take a lap pad that will weigh them down and reduce the impulse to climb. These types of booths are better for privacy just in case you have to do a lot of redirection or you have a child that stims; because chances are some rude person is going to stare like they’ve never seen a human being.
b) A booth/table by a window so your child can enjoy the scenery. What’s going on outside the restaurant may be more interesting than what’s going on inside the restaurant.
c) A private room or dining area that’s an extension of the restaurant (not some shabby broom-size closet) that’s not being used. Don’t worry that you’re a bit isolated. It’s okay. You’re out of the house. You’ve made it into the restaurant. That’s half the battle! A private room may be the first step to dining because as things get easier you can transition into the main dining room.
4. Request Timely Service – Not every family needs this, but it doesn’t hurt to request this upfront with the restaurant’s manager. It is best to ask a manager so that the waiter does not get offended. As politely as possible, explain that your child (or adult) functions best when they’re not sitting and waiting for a long time. So, timely service would make for an optimal dining experience and a better tip. Well, maybe leave out the tip part.
One time at an IHOP I was totally upfront with the manager. I told him that my son didn’t sit well or sit long. He needed to be quick with our service if not he was going to have a tsunami up in there.
5. Menus — Check out menus on the internet or call ahead for diet restrictions. When we were doing the GFCFSF diet, we always checked out the menus on restaurant websites ahead of time. Rarely was there a restaurant that didn’t offer something that the kids could eat.
If you choose a buffet, most of them have GFCF choices like corn, broccoli, salad, baked chicken and fish. Just make sure nothing has butter in it.
6. Take Human Backup — If your respite worker or babysitter is available, take them with you for backup. That way the parents can enjoy their meal and the child gets the extra attention they may need. Plus, the worker gets a free meal.
7. Entertainment (aka Necessary Distractions) — Take your own entertainment. Even though many restaurants offer puzzles and coloring books, take your own items to entertain…something the child is familiar with: iPads, handheld games, tactile toys. We were once dining at a restaurant in Las Vegas and whipped out a portable CD player. I could care less that a few people starred as long as my children were getting through the meal without going over and grabbing someone else’s butter role.
8. Headsets — Take noise cancelling headsets because the volume inside of restaurants is unpredictable. Our children have a hard time with auditory processing and sensitivity. And, the worst thing is that the family-friendly restaurants seem to be the loudest…especially when there’s a television at the bar. So, make their dining experience less jolting with headsets. Forget about stigmatism. I see kids with these on out everywhere.
9. Get the check – The minute the food is served, ask for the check and pay it. Sometimes, the only wait you have in a restaurant is when you’re done eating and waiting for the check. During that period, all hell can break loose. I can’t tell you the number of times when we made it through a meal without incident, then my son melted down the last ten minutes because the waitress hadn’t brought the check. We had to make a speedy exit, with him under my arms, simply because the waitress disappeared at the end.
10. The Bathroom – Just in case your child has a meltdown, make sure you know where the bathroom is in the event he/she needs to decompress or gather their bearings.
Here are a few more things to consider: letting diners know you’re with a child with a disability will sometimes garner sympathy and tolerance. If you don’t have these already, invest in the TACA Card. It’s a card sold by one of my favorite organizations, Talk About Curing Autism Now, that you can hand to other diners explaining autism.
I also encourage families whose children have ABA to ask their supervisors to create a program where they can practice dining skills. Then, incorporate dining as a community outing component. That way, you can set reasonable goals for the child and rewards at the end. My son is now able to go into any restaurant and dine, but it took lots of practice and me always considering his needs.
If all else fails and it’s clear you can’t make it through the first course, no problem. It’s not the end of the world. All you have to do is leave the restaurant and grab some drive-through. And, congratulate your child for trying. Do not beat yourself up or feel like a failure, because you’re not! The best thing about the experience is that you tried. And, the more you try it will get easier and easier. Again, it took me two years.