When you have kids with autism, venturing out with the family can be a challenge. We’ve certainly had our share of fiascos, and that’s putting it mildly. With a lot of persistence, we’ve had successes too. Aside from ensuring that the planets are in just the right alignment, and your children are in good moods, with no one overly tired or cranky, here are a few things we’ve learned along the way:
#1 – Find a restaurant where your child feels comfortable
“Family-friendly” is a start, but it’s probably not enough. This one will take some trial and error, but it makes a huge difference to the success of the outing. If you’re trying something new, a little reconnaissance might be in order, even if it just checking out pictures and menus online to see if it is likely to be overstimulating and if they have menu choices that your little ones will like.
#2 – Go back to the same places over and over
Once you find a restaurant your kids are comfortable with, keep going back. This has two benefits – first, overstimulation is less likely when the environment is familiar, and second, the staff will get to know you. If they know you’re a regular customer they may be more willing to be kind / patient toward your family.
#3 – Go when they’re not busy
We always plan to go between meal times, when the restaurant is least likely to be busy. It’s a good idea to be prepared with a “plan B” destination in case you get there and find a parking lot full of cars and a line waiting outside.
#4 – Bring activities and snacks to keep your kids busy and happy
You might have to get creative with the activities. Due to fine motor issues, our boys didn’t like to color so the crayons and coloring pages that many restaurants offer didn’t help us much. They also had about a 10-second attention span so toys didn’t work for long. One thing that worked really well was flash cards. We brought huge stacks of flash cards to do while we waited, and our twins loved to look at them and tell us what they were (they had trouble communicating but they were great with object identification and it was fun for them). Now that they are older, Nintendo DS works great :). We’re still trying to figure out what will work best for our little guy.
#5 – Eat fast
No, seriously. By the time your children have waited for a table, waited for someone to take their order, and waited for the food to arrive, they may not be up for waiting while mom and dad eat. This is the double-edged sword of bringing them snacks to occupy them while they wait. We’ve found that this has gotten better with time though.
#6 – Tip well
We always try to clean up a bit before we leave, because our table (and the floor underneath) usually looks like the Tasmanian devil came through more than once. But even with our efforts, the state of our table usually still warrants a good tip (assuming the service was also good). We hope that it also garners goodwill on the part of the staff, so that if our kids happen to have a rough day the next time we come, they’ll be nice about it.
#7 – Take a break
If you can see your child is getting overstimulated, or there’s an impending meltdown on the horizon, or if your child is already upset, take them outside for a break. You might be able to get away with just taking them to the foyer, but we usually have to go all the way outside and sometimes a stroll around the building. Once they’re away from the crowd and the noise of the restaurant, our kids usually can calm down fairly quick (and if not, at least we’re not disrupting everyone in the restaurant). Once they’re ready, you can try again.
#8 – Have fun!
Try to relax and help your kids enjoy the experience. If it’s fun for them, they’re more likely to be pleasant and calm.
#9 – Have an exit strategy
If things go awry, be prepared to jump ship and try again another day. There have been times we’ve had to ask the waiter/waitress to box up our food before it even made it to the table. If there are at least two adults, have one take the kids to the car while the other pays and waits for the food.
#10 – Don’t give up!!
Teaching our children to interact "appropriately" is a PROCESS, one that can take a long time. It doesn't happen overnight.
At age 2, our kids were a disaster waiting to happen in restaurant. By age 6, we could take them out, even to a new place if it wasn't crowded and they weren't already overstimulated, without incident. Had we kept our boys home all these years, we'd still be unable to take them to a restaurant. You have to start somewhere.
We now find ourselves back to "square one" in a sense, because our 3-yr-old, who is also on the spectrum, faces the same difficulties as his brothers, and he's at the beginning of that learning process. Sometimes we choose to save that battle for another day, and just stay home or eat take-out in the car :).