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Dining Out on Vacation (or anywhere else).

Beaches Turks, Dining - CropWhile the purpose of this blog is to provide useful information to families taking vacations with their ASD child, it is even better when the content helps with everyday living. We certainly are doing that today.

You will, almost certainly, need to think about dining out while you are on vacation. It is highly probable that you would like this to be a pleasant experience at other times.

In this instance, we’ve invited a guest blogger, Connie Hammer to share some strategies. Connie is a Certified Parent Coach and the founder of Parent Coaching for Autism.  She is an excellent resource for parents in many areas and we would suggest pay a visit to www.parentcoachingforautism.com when you’ve finished reading this post.

Over to Connie:


Enjoy Dining Out with Your ASD Child


Going out to eat can be a wonderful experience when it is just you and your partner on a ‘date night out’ but when you have to dine with your children it is a different scenario entirely.  Going on a family vacation is one of those times when dining out with your children is a must – at least most of the time.


When you have a child with an autism spectrum disorder you may cringe at the thought of eating out in a restaurant on a daily basis. I know some parents who have avoided family vacations for that very reason until I helped them discover how a fun family respite could occur with success.


Here are four of the most common ‘let’s-NOT-go-on-vacation’ reasons related to eating in restaurants parents have shared with me.


  1. Because being on the road or on vacation is a big change in routine for a child with autism who thrives in a predictable environment and going to a different place for breakfast, lunch and dinner everyday can be too much change.
  2. Because restaurants can be over-stimulating to the senses and easily trigger a meltdown.
  3. Because the transitions in and out of an eating establishment can be overwhelming.
  4. Because it is too much work and it just isn’t any fun!


Allow me to address each one of these issues.


1 – Yes, a vacation is a big change in routine but you can create a vacation that has a basic daily routine to it in order to make it as predictable as possible for your child.


–          Create a visual calendar or daily schedule for your child before you leave – do this together if age appropriate. The time you take talking about the sequence of the trip, putting it down on paper – whether in writing or picture format – will help establish it in your child’ memory. Even the most basic daily schedule will make each day more predictable and lessen any anxiety that might be lurking underneath.

–          While on vacation you fill in around the basics as you decide more specifically what you will be doing the following day. Adding more details to the calendar and reviewing it each night will help your child feel even more secure.

–          Don’t forget the power of a personalized social story that can be read each night before bed, weeks before you leave. Yes, that does mean you have to plan in advance – at least one month prior to take off – but the benefits you will reap are worth it.

–          Inform and educate your child. Don’t ever assume your child can’t learn new things or adjust to new situations. Every action of everyday should be spent educating your child and answering the question, “How is what I am doing today helping my child become the person I want him to be?”

–          Practice. That’s right, ‘practice makes perfect.’ – well almost. Children learn by seeing, hearing and doing, so make sure you provide enough hands on opportunities to build muscle memory for a new skill. Have a family meal at home and practice being in a restaurant. Give each family member roles; wait person, other customers, cashier, etc and play it out!

–          Play “What If?” – While in character, present ‘what if’ situations that can be brainstormed and role-played in advance. Example: “What if they are out of what you want to order?”

–          Don’t forget about your child’s food sensitivities, allergies or intolerances. If your child needs a special diet keep that in mind when looking for a place to eat. Try to bring their menu up online and if that is not possible – call them and ask before you get there.


2 – Pay attention to all of your child’s sensory issues before leaving home. Be prepared to address any sensory sensitivity your child has and therefore reduce the possibility of a meltdown.


–          Sight: A busy restaurant may have too many visual distractions. Use sunglasses for glaring lights; ask to sit in a more secluded section such as a booth or a corner of the room; sit by a window for something different to look out of and focus on; bring a magazine to look at or book to read.

–          Sound: Don’t forget the auditory commotion that typically occurs in family restaurants. Consider noise-cancelling headphones to drown out sound; bring an iPod with ear buds that has been pre-programmed with calming music or your child’s favorites.

–          Smell: Restaurant kitchens can have some over-powering scents wafting through the dining room. We all have smells we don’t like that can trigger unusual reactions, this is even more pronounced for a child on the spectrum. A handkerchief or piece of cloth doused in your child’s favorite scent can come in handy at times like these.

–          Taste: Most children on the autism spectrum have particular tastes and are used to having things prepared a certain way. Even when you order food items you know your child likes the chef’s cooking may be different from yours.  Just in case, be prepared with some condiments that will help make the food more palatable to your child or always have nutritious fruit or snack food on hand if all else fails.

–          Touch/texture: Whether it is the hard chair, the scratchy material on the booth, the cold toilet seat, or the texture or temperature of the food – be prepared to shift gears. You can always ask to be seated elsewhere or send food back to be reheated. Bringing an item along that is soothing to your child to touch is always a good distraction to have on hand.


3 – Practice transitions and other known restaurant related occurrences – such as talking to other adults, using table manners, ordering food, waiting for your meal, appropriate behavior in public places, etc. This is a great real life laboratory for practicing and developing social skills. Help your child put into practice what you have been so patiently teaching her.


–          No surprises. Give your child advance notice that he will be going to a restaurant so he can have time to adjust to the idea. Use the time to pre-teach by reviewing the do’s and don’ts about dining out.

–          Prepare for and anticipate what to do while waiting – bring items to occupy your child or have another adult take your child for walk after ordering. If you know your child is already overwhelmed call your order in ahead, if possible?

–          Most likely your child will have to use the bathroom while there. This is the time to implement your strategies for using strange bathrooms while on vacation.


4 – Plan things that will make it fun! Yes, creating a relaxed and festive atmosphere does take time, energy and effort but all good outcomes require that.


–          Bring books, small puzzles, crayons and paper, or other small items you know your child likes to occupy her time with. Better yet, make these items special by using them just for eating out.

–          Use apps. There are a variety of apps that you can use to entertain your child if necessary. I would, although encourage you to find ways to entertain your child by interacting with her or encourage him to entertain himself. One app that will not only entertain your child but reinforce social messages about going places is the visual support app from Model Me Kids called Going Placeshttp://www.modelmekids.com/iphone-app-autism.html

–          Don’t go at the height of breakfast, lunch or dinner – choose slow times deliberately. It is difficult to have fun when there is too much stimulation and distraction around you.

–          Never dine with children when they are too hungry or too tired. If your child is too cranky – for whatever reason – your dining experience will not be enjoyable.


You may also want to contemplate the pros and cons of alerting the wait staff about your child’s special needs. Every parent feels different about disclosure, so consider it carefully. Using the words “disability” or “autism” can help others understand and be supportive. A good guiding question might be – “What would the benefits be right now of telling the restaurant staff my child has autism?” The answer may differ with each situation.

Also, As much as you would like some down time with your spouse you don’t want to let your guard down. Don’t get lost in conversation and pay close attention to your child’s moods and behaviors so you can stay one step ahead – anticipate, anticipate, anticipate and always have an escape plan if things aren’t going well.

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