Every child is unique, and every kind of “special needs” is a little different from every other. For the purposes of this piece, we will assume we are talking about a child who has serious mental, emotional, or behavioral issues, perhaps a child with autism or some other condition that makes him or her (we’ll say “him” from now on to keep it simple) at times unable or unwilling to cooperate in the way you would like, and prone to meltdowns, creating public scenes, etc. As opposed to, say, a child who is severely physically handicapped and in a wheelchair, or a child who has highly unusual dietary needs due to a medical condition or food allergies.
No matter how much you love your child, and no matter how much you tell yourself that it’s important for him to get used to being out in public at places like restaurants, it’s understandable that you would experience trepidation at the prospect of a family night out. You know from experience what a nightmare it can turn out to be.
There’s nothing you can do to guarantee-or even come close to guaranteeing-that everything will go totally smoothly when you bring your special needs child to a restaurant. But here are a few points to keep in mind to at least give you and your family the best shot at a positive experience:
* Is familiarity a factor in your child’s behavior? If there’s some place he is used to where he tends to do well, stick with it.
* Choose a restaurant where attitudes are casual, where the staff and other patrons are used to kids being noisy, making a mess, crying, etc., not a super stuffy restaurant where people will freak out if a child is not ideally quiet and well-behaved.
* Go during a time of day when the restaurant tends to be uncrowded. Busy times mean longer waits, more stimulation and distraction for your child, more people being present to observe and be inconvenienced by a meltdown, etc.
* Pick a restaurant where you’re confident the service will be fairly fast. You can play a role in this as well by making sure everyone is ready to order the first time the server comes to the table, asking for the check to be brought with the meal, etc. Keep things moving at a good pace. You want to avoid dead time where your bored child will look for ways to let the world know he’s frustrated and unhappy.
* Use your judgment in letting your server know of your child’s special needs. That way maybe they’ll speed up their service, be tolerant of finicky special food orders, freak out less if there’s a meltdown, etc.
* Bring along a toy, book, etc. that may keep your child occupied and content.
* If your child has an issue with using an unfamiliar or public bathroom, make sure he goes to the bathroom before you leave home.
* Maximize the chances your child will cooperate and eat by going out when you know he hasn’t eaten in a long time and is hungry.
* If you’re not confident there are items on the menu your child will eat, bring suitable food from home or stop at a grocery store or takeout place on the way. (If he’s a child, and especially if you explain that he’s a child with special needs, the restaurant shouldn’t object to his eating outside food.)
* Choose where you sit strategically. Take a table farthest from the action to avoid overstimulation. Seat your child in a booth between you and the wall, or some place he is least likely and able to get up and dash off or cause a problem. Give him a seat facing the direction where there will be the least stimulation.
* Child proof the area as necessary. It depends on your child, but perhaps this means keeping the salt and pepper, sugars, condiments, etc. out of his reach. Maybe it means getting his drink in a sippy cup that won’t spill.
* Ask for extra napkins.
* Pay close attention to your child. Anticipate when he might be building to a meltdown. Speak with him or do something to keep him occupied to head it off. Take him outside with you to give him a break during the meal if necessary.
* Anticipate things that might trigger a problem. Is your child likely to respond poorly to the hubbub of one of those restaurant birthday songs? Ask your server to alert you before any singing or carrying on like that in your area of the restaurant.
* Be flexible and admit defeat if necessary. It’s entirely possible you won’t make it through the meal successfully despite all your preparation and your best efforts, because your child simply will not allow it. If so, be willing to cut the meal short and have what’s left boxed up in carryout containers and leave.
Sometimes what your child-and you-needs most is practice. Once he’s been in a certain situation enough times, he’s more likely to be comfortable and behave better. Until then, use these tips as well as your own knowledge and instincts to do the best you can with what can genuinely be a very trying situation.
Terri Mauro, “10 Tips for Dining Out With a Child With Special Needs.” About.com.
Nancy J. Price, “Eat Out-Even With an Autistic Child.” She Knows Parenting.