By Jacqueline Forchetti, BCBA
Going out to a restaurant with a child is challenging, but when you have a child with sensory issues or learning differences it can be a daunting experience, trust me I know. Not only am I a board certified behavior analyst, but I am a mom of five children—including a son with autism—and a restaurant owner. From the time my son was very young it was always important to me to include him in our family outings, and especially when we would go out to eat. To say it was difficult at times, is an understatement! As a behavior analyst, I have learned through the years that there is no quick fix and that children need the opportunity to practice skills taught at home or in therapy into the natural setting and have them truly be a part of the community.
My advice is to find a restaurant in your town that is understanding and that will support your family, because they are out there—and you are not alone! More and more restaurants today are becoming more aware and accommodating to children and adults with learning differences.
Here are 7 tips parents can do is to prepare their children for the experience:
- Look online - many restaurants have their menus posted online as well as pictures of the restaurant. Take the time to look with your child and prepare them for where you are going and what they would like to order. Be as specific as possible and also let them know when they will be going. First/ then schedules or other daily schedules can also be helpful in reducing anxiety and letting them know when you will be going.
- Use visual supports - Social stories that can be made online ( or with regular pictures) can be helpful for preparing your child for the new environment they will experience as well as the steps that will happen during your restaurant visit. Familiarize your child with the new environment and be as detailed as possible, for example know where the bathrooms are.
- Practice and role play - Practice sitting at the table and ordering food as you would in the restaurant setting. Practice and break down skills that you will need in a restaurant for example, sitting and waiting for food. Use positive reinforcement to increase the behaviors that you want to see.
- Call the restaurant in advance - in many restaurants, you can pre-order your food so you can minimize the wait when you arrive. You can also request the check after your order is in and prepay before you eat so that you can leave quickly if needed. Make friends with the owner/manager and share your concerns prior to arriving so they can find the best location to seat your family and accommodate you in the best way they can. You may want the quietest area of the restaurant or some children may not mind the noise but would do better at a window seat. If your child requires a special diet or their food to be prepared or presented a certain way make sure you ask. If you need the music turned down or the lights dimmed, ASK, you may be surprised at how people want to help make your experience a comfortable one.
- Keep busy at the table - maybe its a game on the iPad, a couple of books or some crayons to color with. Try to wait until you arrive at the table before giving a highly preferred item so your child doesn’t become satiated with it before your restaurant visit and it remains highly motivating.
- Bring comfort items - a small stuffed animal or blanket may provide comfort and familiarity for some children. Even a favorite cup could be a comforting item that helps to keep a child calm.
- Expect meltdowns - Yes, they can happen and sometimes do even when we do everything we can to be proactive and prevent them. Give yourself a break and understand that your child is learning to cope with the new environment and stimulation that is around them. Also, remember that going out to a restaurant is a learning experience. As a parent, you know best how to handle your child’s meltdowns. Maybe they need a quick break from the table to take a short walk or something else that can help deescalate the situation. Visual supports can also be very helpful at times like these. Know that most people are understanding and will give you the space to handle your child as only you know best. Trust in yourself and have patience with your child. Sometimes it can be tough, but meltdowns don’t last forever and you can have confidence that you are teaching your child skills they will carry out for a lifetime.
P.S. Do You Live In The New York City Area? We Are Having A Sensory Friendly Dining Event On November 18th! We Would Love To See You There!
(This feature has been updated. It was first published on March 25, 2017)