The years before and after Norrin was diagnosed with autism, dining out as a family was practically impossible. I couldn’t understand how some families made it look so easy, when we were having such a difficult time.
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’s right, but dining out with a special needs kid is not always delightful.
Working with therapists helped me understand the diagnosis. I learned that things that come easily for others are challenging for children with autism.
There were several socialization scenarios Norrin needed to be taught including dining out in public.
Honestly, I didn’t want people staring if Norrin had a meltdown or was too loud.
Once we entered a restaurant, sat down at our table and a band started to play. Norrin couldn’t handle it. We decided to leave. As we walked out, I apologized. “Our son has autism and it’s just much louder than we expected.” My husband told me that we never had to apologize. He was right.
I had to stop caring about other people if I wanted Norrin to have the social experience of going out to eat.
Years ago, I couldn’t imagine us ever eating out at a nice restaurant. Now we go out often. And Norrin loves it. We even have many favorite kid-friendly restaurants to choose from.
5 Tips For Eating Out With Your Special Needs Kid
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. One of our favorite restaurants has a LEGO store next door. We buy a small set to keep him occupied while we wait for our food. BUT while he’s eating, the toys and iPad go away.
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.
We give Norrin the opportunity to choose what he wants to eat. We prompt him 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. Once 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.