Julia Child once said, “Dining with one’s friends and beloved family is certainly one of life’s primal and most innocent delights, one that is both soul-satisfying and eternal.” Julia may be right but dining out with a special needs kid may not be so delightful.
The years before and after my son Norrin was diagnosed with autism, dining out was practically impossible. I couldn’t understand how some families could make it look so easy, when we were having such a difficult time.
Once I started to understand the diagnosis and after working with different therapists, I learned that things that come so easily for others are challenging for children with autism. There were several socialization scenarios Norrin needed to be taught – including dining out in public. And I realized that I didn’t want to keep Norrin from having that social experience.
Five years ago, I couldn’t imagine us ever eating out at a nice restaurant. Now we have many favorite kid-friendly restaurants to choose from.
These are 5 things that really worked for us when we started taking Norrin out to eat:
Keep it local: Start someplace familiar or within walking distance of your home; even if it’s just a fast food place (preferably one without a play space) or coffee shop.
Keep it small: Don’t go out with a party of 15. Limit it to yourself, your partner or family friend (in case you need assistance), and your child. You want to be able to focus on your child and make it an enjoyable experience.
Know when to go: Timing is everything! I cannot stress this enough. If you’re going to a kid-friendly restaurant, don’t go during peak times (you may want to call ahead and ask when its busiest and avoid that time). Go midweek around 4:30 PM for an early dinner – it may be less crowded. If you’re going out for breakfast or brunch – arrive a few minutes before the place opens. Go for a late lunch around 2 PM. And if the restaurant accepts reservations, I would suggest making one if you can.
Go prepared: Make sure you plan in advance so that you have books or toys or electronic devices that will keep your child entertained while they wait. And if you can, study the menu prior to arrival so you can order immediately and minimize your wait time.
Know when to leave: If you see your child is having a difficult time, take a five-minute walk around the block. By the time you return, your food may be served. And it’s perfectly okay to take a few bites and leave. Ask for a bag, pack up your food and go home. (Restaurant leftovers can be a nice treat too.) Make a note of your time. And each occasion you go out, try to stay out a little bit longer.
The world is our classroom and dining out provides many teachable moments. We give Norrin the opportunity to choose what he wants to eat. And we give him the opportunity to relay his food order to the waiter. Even if it takes a few times for Norrin to get it right. Folks in the food service industry are usually friendly and we’ve been lucky to encounter some very patient people.
Eating out also introduces Norrin to new foods he may not try otherwise. Last year we were out at a new place. My husband ordered a soft shell crab sandwich and Norrin was interested enough to take a bite. And he liked it.
I know for many children and families – dining out may always be a challenge. Keep trying. Even if it means making a special meal for your family and practicing at home. Like everything else, it takes time, patience and understanding.
Read more of Lisa’s writing at AutismWonderland.