autism challenging behaviour and eating out

I am a food lover and enjoy nothing more than heading out to a restaurant for a family meal as a special treat.

This is not always easy as restaurants can be a perfect storm when it comes to our Son (6 years old), and the experience can quickly turn from a pleasant meal out to a full-on challenge of all our parenting skills.

Struggling with Challenging Behaviour

The reason for this, is that when eating out our Son will often display what others would view as rather odd behaviour

This can include:
  • Blowing out any lit candles he can see, including those on other people's tables
  • Checking himself out in mirrors for long periods of time, and sometimes licking the mirror
  • Repeatedly exclaiming that he is bored, hungry or tired of waiting at the top of his voice
  • Climbing all over his dad, often trying to climb over Dad's shoulder
  • Trying to empty the salt & pepper grinders onto the table, to "mark his spot"
  • Running around the restaurant, pretending he is a superhero / power ranger or another of his favourite TV characters
  • Sitting under the table

I remember the first time we experienced this - we had gone to Geneva about a year ago and after a day of exploring the city my Son refused to sit down in the restaurant, lying on the floor until we decided to leave as a result of his increasingly erratic behaviour.

He refused to sit down in the restaurant, and lay on the floor until we left as a result of his increasingly erratic behaviour

I became incredibly frustrated that we were not able to have a "nice family meal out", and I remember sitting in the hotel room crying that I wanted to cancel the holiday and head home as I couldn't cope with the constant battles.

Understanding Why It Happens

Since then we learnt that this behaviour is largely as a result of anxiety, and an inability to self-regulate his emotions and behaviours. Knowing this, we have looked at potential triggers and what we can do to reduce his anxiety when eating out. 

For our son this includes:
  • The presence of other children who are a similar age to him
  • Him wanting to eating something that is not on the menu
  • Having to wait too long for his meal
  • Lots of hustle and bustle around us

Knowing the triggers, and reason for his challenging behaviours, has allowed us to develop a set of strategies that allow us to continue going out for family meals with fewer fallouts.

Understanding why has allowed us to develop strategies to eat out with few fallouts

Our strategies include:
  • Picking the restaurant carefully - avoiding those which are too quiet or too crowded & noisy
  • Choose a table in a quiet corner with minimal distractions, when possible
  • Knowing what is on the menu ahead of time, so we can can talk about options before we get to the restaurant
  • Don't worry about what other people may think - getting stressed about other people, will only add pressure to the whole situation
  • Taking our Son for a walk whilst waiting for the meal to arrive, or if he starts getting over-excited - not only is it a distraction, but it is a great way to let off stream
  • Distract with books, audio books or favourite toys (anything but phones, as he is addicted to screens)
  • Allow him to sit under the table rather than insisting he sit on his chair - it helps to minimise distractions and reduce his anxiety
  • Don't try to eat starters, mains and dessert - three courses is just pushing our luck
  • Remain calm and don't make a big fuss - getting wound up is only going to make things worse, staying calm and focusing on something else can help defuse the situation
  • Be prepared to make a hasty exit if things look like they are not going to calm down - you have got to accept that some days it just isn't going to work

This year for my birthday we went out for lunch - and whilst I spent the first part of the meal sat by myself whilst my other half took the kids for a walk to see the ducks, I was able to enjoy a family meal out and we all were able to have a relatively stress free experience.

Do you struggle eating out in restaurants? Have you stopped going, or have you developed your own strategies for making it a little more bearable for everyone? 

Following on from watching the first episode of The A Word, I was keen to see how the story developed and how I would feel about the developments in the story.

This week we saw the family reacting to the diagnosis, and working out what is means for the young boy and themselves. Once again I found myself relating to the story, and reflecting on our experiences.

In particular there were two themes that I identified with - dealing with social isolation, and finding the right education setting.

Dealing with Social Isolation

Joe's mum, Alison, observes Joe playing alone during break-time whilst all the other children play together. Concerned about his lack of interaction with anyone, Alison decides to pull him from school and home-school him. This leads to several challenges for the family who struggle to find a way to engage with Joe, and the family members each start to isolate themselves as they try to deal with their feelings and uncertainty of what to do.

We recently learnt that our Son's social interactions at school had become so challenging at school that he no longer went to assembly, lunch or play-time with the other children and in his classroom his desk was in a corner at one end of the classroom so that his interaction with the other children was minimised. 

At first our reaction was to ask the school to encourage positive social interaction through structured activities with a small group of peers, however we had to come to terms with two things: 
  1. He doesn't have the social skills necessary to do this, and would need to learn social skills before he could start to apply them in group situations
  2. He seems quite content to play with the Teaching Assistants and often prefers to play away from the other children which can be quite overwhelming for him 
So we held off on trying to make sure that he interacted with other children, and started to focus on his needs which meant giving him time to develop the social skills that he needed via the Social Thinking sessions he was receiving before trying to take it to the next level and encourage him to interact with his peers.

For us the greatest challenge with social isolation has been our own.
We don't go out as much as we use to as social situations can be challenging, and we try to avoid these situations as the energy required to support our Son when he is anxious or over-excited is exhausting.  Most days we are so tired from the daily challenges that we just want to stay at home and get some rest. As a result, our world has narrowed over the past year. Luckily we also have friends and family who don't let us escape into our own world too much, and remind us that we need to take time for ourselves to ensure that we don't become too isolated.

With Joe's family, I hope that they will find a way to be honest with each other about what they are feeling and start to work together to reach agreement on what to do next. Dealing with the challenges of autism can be exhausting, and there is nothing like the support of family to help you through the challenging times and remind you that you are not in this alone.

Finding the right education setting

The question of the right education setting for Joe played out throughout the entire episode, with his Mum deciding to home-school, his Dad visiting a Special school, and Joe walking back to his mainstream school as it was "school time".

Finding an education setting for your child can be one of the most important, and most complex, decisions that parents can be faced with when you find your child struggling in their current setting. There is no easy answer, as each child's situation is different which means that the right education setting is hugely dependent on their individual needs and no one can give you the answer.

Our quest to find the right setting in the past year has seen us applying for an EHCP for increased support, moving to a specialist autism unit attached to a mainstream setting, and we are now in the process of moving to a special school which has required us to face our concerns about moving out of mainstream school and what this will mean for our Son's future.

Like Joe's family we worry about doing what is right for our Son, and hope that the decions that we make along with the way will work out for him and that he will be able to flourish with the support that he needs.

Autism Awareness week - Building a community

During Autism Awareness week, I have been struck by how much the A Word is doing to build a community for those who have personal experiences of autism - from the reactions on twitter as the episode aired, to articles in the press, and the many blog posts like mine by parents who have been reflecting on their own experiences in reaction to watching the programme. 

The drama seems to be doing more than just raising awareness of autism - it is creating connections and helping parents to find the support that they need at a time when it is easy to feel like you are in this on your own.

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