We don’t expect children, with or without developmental disabilities, to do things like tying their shoes or playing a new game without first being taught how. Eating in a restaurant (i.e., a new environment, probably out of routine, potential for unexpected environmental stimulation) is a skill like any other—it requires practice, antecedent management (planning), and consequence management (reinforcement). Because children with autism often require a higher level of support when environmental changes occur, families of children with autism may find themselves avoiding eating out in restaurants. With preparation and planning, however, this does not have to be the case.
•Start small– Your first meal out doesn’t have to be at the restaurant you’ve always wanted to try but where you never felt you could bring your child with autism
-Consider starting with fast food, next a sit-down restaurant where the food is ready quickly, and maybe then try that new restaurant
-Try when the stakes are lower—plan your first outing for a time when your family (not just your child with autism!) is not overtired, over hungry, and over-stimulated. Lunch on a weekend might be a good time to practice, as the restaurant may not be as crowded and your family is less likely to be exhausted from school, work, therapies, and/or extracurricular activities
•Make eating out part of your weekly routine. If you plan to go out once a week (on the same evening), your child will know what to expect and will have many opportunities to practice this new skill
•Choose a restaurant that serves food choices your child can and will eat, or bring food for your child from home (you might want to do this even if your child does eat what the restaurant serves, in case you have to wait for your food to arrive)
•If your child is sensitive to loud noises, bright lights, novel smells, etc., consider these environmental factors when deciding where to dine and where you will be seated at the restaurant
•Will we have to wait to be seated?
-If your child does not tolerate waiting, be sure to consider the time of year (tourist season?) and time of day (dinner rush?)
-If your child does tolerate waiting, remember to bring a few preferred items for your child to engage with during the wait
•If your child uses and benefits from a visual schedule, include going out to eat on this schedule
•Consider having the waiter or waitress bring the check with the meal so you don’t have to wait after everyone is finished eating
•Is your child doing an awesome job sitting at the table, eating the restaurant food, or playing with the toys you brought?
-Make sure to deliver reinforcement tailored to your child (e.g., social praise, a small preferred edible, access to a highly-preferred toy that will not cause problems if you need to remove it)
•Has your child asked appropriately to leave the restaurant?
-Although it may seem counterproductive, honoring this request may be a great way to reinforce asking appropriately and to avoid any undesirable behaviors
-Be ready to leave if you need to, even if you haven’t eaten yet
Engage Behavioral Health provides ABA therapy in Sarasota, Fl for children with autism or other special needs. For more information about our services, contact us today at (813) 374-2070.
Brittany C. Wierzba, PhD, BCBA-D
Tags: ABA therapy Sarasota FL