By Bridget Anderson, M.Ed., BCBA
[This column was published in the West Springfield Republican on November 24, 2022.]
Many children, with and without developmental disabilities, can struggle during a night out to dinner at a restaurant. For parents, what is meant to be an enjoyable experience with a night off from cooking and doing dishes can quickly become a challenging situation.
Sometimes it can feel easier to avoid the experience and instead order take out, delivery, or just cook at home, especially if a recent restaurant trip was not successful. However, going out to dinner can be an enjoyable and fun experience for a family if you plan ahead, develop some strategies, and are willing to make adjustments along the way. Here are a few suggestions:
- Contact the restaurant in advance to see if they offer call ahead seating or reservations. Using these options will help you avoid waiting a long time to be seated or arriving and realizing the wait is too long and then having to change plans.
- Go out to eat at quieter times of the day. Going before or after the dinner rush (6-9 p.m.) will not only help you avoid a long wait to be seated, but also makes for a quieter dining experience. Don’t hesitate to ask for an area of the restaurant that is quieter and less stimulating. You might also ask the manager or hostess if your child can pick the table where they will feel most comfortable; maybe it’s a booth rather than a table with chairs, or it might be a table near a window. Noise control measures can be helpful for children with autism or other developmental disabilities who might have noise sensitivity or who may feel overwhelmed or overstimulated in noisier environments.
- Look at the menu online before arriving at the restaurant. Then you can plan in advance what you will order as soon as your server approaches. If your child has food selectivity, aka is a “picky eater,” reviewing the menu ahead of time allows you to make sure there is something they will like. Sometimes it can be beneficial to order the kids’ meals first, although this tip might not be best for quick eaters! It is a good idea to bring preferred toys that will entertain and engage your child when you are waiting for food to arrive or if your child finishes their dinner before the rest of the family. While electronics such as a tablet might seem like a good idea, consider how it will go when the meals arrive and you ask them to pause or turn off the device. You might decide offering technology is not worth the struggle, and instead use a less preferred, but still fun toy for your child as a better alternative.
- Consider your child’s sensory needs. Lights and music volume can vary dramatically from one restaurant to another. Be aware of what the lighting will be, how loud music might be playing, or if there are certain times when there is live music at the restaurant. Many restaurants now offer sensory friendly accommodations and hours.
- End the experience with a reward. Reinforce, or reward, your child after a positive eating out experience. This might be a dessert from the menu at the end of the meal, a favorite activity after dinner, or a small item you brought along with you. Make sure you mention the item will be available at the end of the meal if your child does a good job at dinner.
Celebrate the small successes and be open to trying again if the experience does not go as you planned or hoped it would. You can learn from each attempt and may find that with some persistence and adjustments to the plan, your family will be able to regularly enjoy a dinner out together at your favorite restaurant.
Bridget Anderson, M.Ed., BCBA, is the Executive Director at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in West Springfield. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities, including one in West Springfield, and our newest school in Chicopee, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit www.mayinstitute.org.