Spectrum Warriors: Life Through The Autism Spectrum

Ten Tips for Navigating a Restaurant

Eating out is often a special treat for families. One night off from cooking for the chef of the family. However, if you’re a parent of a child with autism, often eating out can be more stressful than fun and something that ends up being avoided so as not to trigger meltdowns.

We used to eat out once a week as a family – it was a ritual. But after an anxiety attack two summers ago at a restaurant, eating out stopped being fun for us. One mention of the word restaurant and MJ would just clam up and start acting out so we wouldn’t have to go.

A restaurant is a an extremely overwhelming experience for your senses. The lighting is often dim, different than what we are used to – just think of how you need to adjust your eyes when you step outside. That unfamiliar lighting can make things look different; if the lights are fluorescent, it could be even worse. According to A Conversation On Autism

Lighting is a problem for autistics. Fluorescent lights send out pulsing vibrations that, though often not easily noticeable to normal people, are detectable and highly uncomfortable for many autistics. One researcher found that fluorescent lights increased repetitive behavior in some autistic children

Then there’s the noise. The din of conversations can be unbearable. Temple Grandin says her hearing is like having a hearing aid with the volume control stuck on “super loud.”  Depending where you sit, you may hear dishes clattering, maybe waiters singing happy birthday and the list goes on.

And of course there are smells. Some are yummy and some not so much. Even I have a difficult time in a restaurant if the smell of seafood is strong – I have a an allergy to seafood and there’s something about the smell of it that just turns my neuro-typical stomach.

Then there are the unknowns – how busy will it be? Who will the waiter be? Will it be a male or female? How many people will be there? Will I know anyone? How long will it take to get my food? A dizzying array of questions that we simply can’t answer because these are variable – there’s no place like Cheers where everybody knows your name.

If your child has a specialized diet, eating out can be an even bigger challenge because many restaurants that are family-friendly use pre-packaged sauces making substitutions difficult, if not impossible.

I’m pleased to say that in the two years since that first anxiety attack we’ve worked hard to get back to a place where we can enjoy the odd meal out at a dining establishment. We are not eating out at the same frequency as we used to, but it’s no longer something we completely avoid. Here are ten tips that helped get me a night off from playing chef every now and again.

  1. If your child is on a specialized diet, check online, call or drop in to one of the local chain restaurants. Most of these have allergy guide menus available either online or in the restaurant for your perusal. If you know ahead of time the food choices that are available you can prep your child and take away one of the questions they might have.
  2. Ask for a booth and not a table if possible – a table is often in the middle of the restaurant with absolutely no shielding possibilities for either visual or auditory stimuli.
  3. In the booth, think about seating, place your child on the inside so they can’t escape.
  4. Look up before you let them choose a side or seat, look for the air conditioning or heating vent, lights and speakers. Choose a side that is further away from all of those things if possible. Also, look around, is there one side that looks at a wall, or is away from the door or any other kind of potential sensory distractions.
  5. Bring a bag of tricks, a special toy that they get only when you go to a restaurant (becomes a positive reinforcement reward), or something that gives extra sensory stimulation like a squishy ball or play doh.
  6. Take them to the bathroom as soon as you arrive if they haven’t been there before, so they know where it is if they have to go.
  7. Bring a small snack with you so that if the wait is long, they have something to munch on.
  8. Take little trips or drives by the restaurant to get them familiar with what it looks like, the different cars and people. You can even just walk in the restaurant one day and ask to walk around for a minute or use the bathroom, just to show your child what it looks like before you try eating there.
  9. If noises really bother your child, try using ear muffs or noise cancelling headphones to muffle the sounds. This worked for a while for us, until MJ got a little self conscious when she realized she was the only person wearing them and they weren’t hooked up to anything.
  10. If you have the luxury of having a tablet, bring it and use it, but also make sure you have ear phones to go along with it. This has been the number-one saving grace for us as of late. We have a rule about what she can play or do on the tablet before dinner comes. During dinner, she is not allowed to play on it, but instead she listens to music and drowns out the noises and conversation. It’s not great for promoting family time/conversation, but even our kids can be allowed a night off from that every now and again. The music isn’t so loud that we can’t engage her with the odd question, and in fact, sometimes we think we get better responses from her then we would have if she didn’t have this to help her cope. It’s another positive reinforcement that also eliminates a lot of the sensory overload.

We plan to work up to her removing the earphones during mealtimes – but like anything, it’s all about baby steps and attempting to make each outing a positive experience so she wants to do it again. In fact, we’ve had such success that she actually asked this weekend for the first time in two years if we could go out to eat. That was indeed a milestone worth celebrating with a dinner out and here’s the evidence to prove she even smiled during dinner!


Happy eating,



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