Our strategies for eating out - with our son under the table

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? 

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