Thoughts and strategies: taking a child with autism to a restaurant

Stuart Duncan


One of the harder things about having a child with Autism is dealing with the public. Whether it’s having to explain to other people, dealing with the judging stares or just giving up on the public entirely (no more eating out)… it’s a very hard situation to have to face.

Some people learn how to ignore the glares, cope with the meltdowns, avoid the meltdowns or how to accept that they just can’t go out any more. Others do not and constantly feel a heavy weight on them with which ever situation they find themselves in.

News stories such as this one don’t help matters. First, we recognize that society simply isn’t ready as most people don’t have the patience to tolerate a screaming child and second, it instills fear into other parents. They’ll be much more unlikely to take their child out for fear of suffering a similar embarrassment.

This post won’t have it’s normal, natural flow to it as I’m just going to give some random thoughts on this topic as well as, what I hope, are some useful tips.

Why do they have a meltdown?
With Autism comes a whole host of problems, such as social anxiety, fear of the unknown, sensory overload (patrons talking, kitchen noises, background music, air conditioner, bad lighting, smells from the kitchen, etc, etc, etc) and several other issues that may or may not be common for Autistic children.

You add that all up and it’s not a matter of if the child will have a meltdown, it’s when.

Taking a child out of their routine and out of their comfort zone is often enough to do it but when you add in everything else in a restaurant, it’s a recipe for disaster.

It’s not hard to figure out why a meltdown is likely to happen. The tricky parts involve knowing what specifically will be the final straw and also in anticipating the meltdown and either avoiding it or being ready to deal with it quickly.

First of all, do not be embarrassed unless they’re right
If people judge you to be a bad parent or mutter things about proper discipline… unless those things are true, you have absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about. Your child has Autism and is genuinely in a great deal of pain and fear, those people not only have no place to speak but they’re dead wrong. Therefore, why should you feel embarrassed?

You can feel bad about how society is or feel bad about having disturbed people but don’t feel embarrassed.

Start smaller than small
Like everything else, outings take practice. They just may take more practice for an Autistic child than for others.

Start in your own house. Put on some music while you eat, have your children be in the kitchen while you cook. Invite some family over and have a dinner where everyone talks at once… but be sure they’re all in on it so they know when to tone it down.

A few of these (the amount of duration dependent on your child) and you should be ready for an outing! But, maybe not to DisneyLand yet.

First, go to the corner store, a department store… just places with people. And when you’re ready for a sit down, start small again with a diner or cafe.

There are less people, less sensory issues and if something does go wrong… there’s less people to annoy and an easier out.

Most importantly, don’t be disappointed at the failed attempts. They’re not failures. They’re practice runs. You may find yourself leaving before you’re done your meal but 2 or 3 attempts and you’ll find yourself leaving before dessert. A few more times later, you’ll be leaving during dessert… and finally, leaving after the food is done.

From there, you’re not done… you move up to a bigger restaurant.

It’s practice… it’s a slow process… it’s not “normal” or what others will tell you is “normal” but you know what? It will get you there.

Every good plan needs an escape route
For all those practice runs and even for the finished product, you need an escape route. A way out if things do go south.

It’s up to you to plan it but try to keep things in mind like, how can the child get out to the car quickly and safely and still have the bill paid? With 2 parents, this is easy enough. If you’re a single parent, you may need to prepare some more. Maybe let the waiter/host know the situation and if you need a quick out, to be ready for you.

Don’t take it for granted. A quick out can mean a much less difficult time for the rest of the day where as a child that feels trapped in there might not recover… meaning rough behavior and even a tough bed time that night.

Even adults with their Autism completely under control still feel a meltdown coming on sometimes and need to know they can get out of there as quickly as possible.

Remember, they’re not bad people
In the news article posted above, the business owner asked that the people leave because they were disturbing other people. The initial reaction to this is disgust because it’s not the child’s fault and people really should be more tolerant.

However, at the same time, you need to realize that this person is running a business where his customers expect a nice quiet atmosphere to enjoy their breakfast. The article doesn’t state how many screams or for how long they lasted but it truly is entirely possible that he was disturbing other people.

Whether the business owner was aware the child had special needs or not is not the issue. It’s a matter of common decency. It’s just about being nice to others.

The others could have and should have been nicer to the mother and her child, understanding that he’s not wanting to bother anyone but also, the mother needs to understand that intentional or not, it is disruptive and forcing everyone else to endure it is not all that kind.

And to pressure the business owner to have to choose between one disruptive customer and the rest that are being disturbed is not fair to him.

This is where the escape routes come into play. If your child is not stopping, if you may be bothering others… use that escape route, go do something else and try again another day. It’s called practice for a reason.

If it’s just not going to happen, don’t despair
All the tips and practice in the world just won’t do it sometimes. Unfortunately, not every child is the same and that means that not every child is going to be able to cope with restaurants.

Find yourself a babysitter, get some respite… what ever you need, if you need your restaurant meals sometimes. Otherwise, save your money and eat in.

Your child will not miss out on life by not going into a restaurant to eat. It’s unfortunate and I can sympathize but remember, you are sparing your child from actual fears, anxieties and even pain.

Sensory overload is a very serious problem that can be much worse than torture.

Your child isn’t just being a bad kid while out, they’re in pain. And you not going out really is for the best.

We’re all in different situations
We’ve either done well or not or we’ve had to give up… it’s a hard road either which way and we have reasons for being where we’re at. When we see others do something differently, it’s natural for us to question it or tell them they’re doing something wrong.

The truth is though that not every child will do well with practice, not every child should be kept home because of one bad outing.

Don’t feel bad, don’t feel embarrassed. Always have an escape route and do what you feel is best for your child.

Courtesy of Stuart Duncan


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