Going out to eat can be a rewarding experience. Dining in restaurants is a large part of our culture and leads to stronger communities. However, families of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may avoid restaurant meals because of the challenges they present.
Don’t give up on dining out as a family. There are strategies that can help make restaurant meals more enjoyable and successful experiences.
Use these tips to help your child with autism prepare for a visit to a restaurant:
- Talk to your child about your upcoming restaurant visit. You can practice restaurant dining by arranging the table with menus and letting you child practice ordering. If you use a picture schedule, you may also want to incorporate the restaurant visit as part of your child’s daily schedule.
- Visit the restaurant during non-peak hours to allow your child to get used to the environment. If you call and speak to the manager and explain that your child has autism, you may be able to visit the restaurant before or after business hours.
- Conduct research beforehand and identify restaurants known for fast service.
- Review menus before choosing a restaurant to ensure that the restaurant offers something your child will eat.
- Make a reservation, if possible, or call ahead to reduce your wait time at the restaurant.
- Make sure your child is actually hungry when you visit the restaurant.
During the meal
Once you get to the restaurant, these strategies can help improve your family’s mealtime experience:
- Request to sit in a booth rather than a table, preferably away from the bathroom. This may help reduce the overall stimulation your child may experience.
- Bring preferred foods to the restaurant to ensure your child will actually eat and help minimize disruptive behavior. Food selectivity, or extremely picky eating, is common in children with autism.
- Bring activities to help occupy your child’s attention or make the experience easier for your child to tolerate. Taking a walk may also be helpful if there is a long wait.
- Request the check when your entrees arrive in order to reduce overall time spent in the restaurant.
Learning to dine out takes practice. By giving your child opportunities to eat at restaurants and incorporating these tips, he may start to enjoy these occasions.
If you find that your child is having feeding issues that are causing problems with eating in any environment, learn more about our Feeding Program.
We recognize that every child is unique and that the content of this article may not work for everyone. This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. We hope these tips will serve as a jumping-off point for finding the best approach to helping a child with autism. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.