Problem #1 – The restaurant looks different.
A child on the autism spectrum often remembers seemingly minute details. He would be likely to remember where each family member sits at a table in a restaurant. He would likely remember the nice waiter who always has red balloons. He would also remember the way his favorite fast food restaurant looks inside and that it may be very different than another restaurant in the same chain.
Problem # 2 – The restaurant is too crowded.
Typically children with autism do not like crowds. People may be too close for comfort in a crowded public restaurant. Restaurant workers may be too “pushy” or too much in the child’s face.
Problem #3 – The restaurant is too noisy.
Sometimes the child thrives on turning up the volume from a favorite movie or CD. Those are preferred sounds. The sounds from a large crowd of people and unexpected sounds (a cannon firing near a theme park restaurant) can be uncomfortable or even painful to the child on the autism spectrum.
Problem #4 – The restaurant does not serve foods the child likes.
No one likes to eat at a place where they don’t like the food, and many children who are autistic have very limited diets (by their choice), perhaps preferring only foods of a certain texture or color. Other children may be on a restricted diet to address the autism.
Problem #5 – There are too many stims for the child.
Special lighting, fun doors, and dangling decorations can be stims for the child on the autism spectrum. If they are too engaging, it may be hard to even get the child to sit at the table.
Consider these strategies before tackling the restaurant scene.
Know the restaurant.
Prepare your child to expect differences. (The burger place in your town has a western décor, but the one in the same chain in grandma’s town has a sports theme.) Using pictures to talk ahead of time can help.
Try to choose times that will be less congested. If possible, try to have a favorite place to sit and request it.
If necessary, take some preferred foods for the child.
Sometimes, consider eating out without the kids. Although a meal out can be a treat if it is the child’s favorite place, remember that not every meal out has to include the kids.