* Think about the accommodations your family will need (wheelchair friendly, dietary needs, quiet spots in the restaurant, etc.). Call the restaurant and ask about these details in advance.
* Print pictures of the foods your child has enjoyed off the menu items of the restaurant you plan to dine. Try to label the picture cards with the name of the food or dish (this is good for picture-word recognition) and review them with your child.
* Keeping pictures of restaurant logo’s or taking photos of restaurant fronts might be great for encouraging your child to choose the restaurant (remember to keep them with their food pictures too). For children who don’t need pictures, some restaurants have their menu available online to download or print. Print the restaurant menu and review it with your child. Let him or her make their dinner choices in advance (the whole family should be making their choices too). This would be a great time saver at the restaurant.
* Make sure your child uses the bathroom just before leaving the house.
* Let your child bring a favorite toy, book, or tablet. If your child can wear them, bring headphones or ear plugs for helping them deal with noise.
* If you've never taken your child to a restaurant before, start with fast food restaurants first. They are quick and easy when it comes to service, so there will be no problem with having to dine and dash in the event of major melt-down.
* After you've tried a fast-food restaurant, try going to a buffet restaurant. Once you are seated, you can go serve yourself a plate of food - so no wait time! I took my son several times, and he loves being able to choose the foods he wants. He pointed to the foods he wanted and he even served himself fries. Richie also loved choosing his dessert as well.
* When you're ready to try to a sit-down restaurant, try to make a reservation first. This will also help with seating and eliminate the wait time. Some restaurants don’t take reservations anymore, inquire about their “call ahead” policy. Many restaurants are adopting a policy that allows patrons to call in for “checking in” just before they leave their house. This will help cut wait times in half.
* Call the restaurant in advance and ask them about their peak (busiest) days and times. For example, a Tuesday night at 7 pm might be the slowest time for some restaurants, while Saturday night at 7 pm might be their busiest. Naturally, you’ll want to go during their slow hours.
* At the restaurant, explain to the hostess about your child’s disability (some national organizations have disability specific awareness cards, find out if there are any available for your child’s disability and try to obtain some for outings like these) free Autism Cards. Ask if you can be seated in an area that has the least noise, and is somewhat secluded. Try to avoid being seated next to the kitchen, restrooms, bar section, or anywhere that might have the most traffic.
* If you have a child with autism or sensory issues, ask to be seated at a booth. This seating is not only more comfortable, it will help with reducing stimuli (many booths have high-backs and are closed in). If your child is a runner, this will help avoid that situation if they’re seated on the inside. * Be sure to check for plants, candles, wine bottles, or other objects that might be sitting on the shelf of the booth, make sure your child can’t reach them, or kindly ask for those items to be moved. If your child uses a wheelchair, ask if you can be seated furthest from the high traffic areas and passing of patrons.
* Explain to the waiter/waitress about your child’s disability (give them a card if you have one). This will easily explain your child’s unfamiliar differences or non-responsive behavior to inquiries (what would you like to drink?). Ask the waiter /waitress if they can rush your child’s order and bring it out ahead of time. If needed, ask for your child’s beverage to be served with a lid (a sippy or to-go cup). If your child uses a wheelchair and has no cognitive issues or difficulty with communication (and if it's appropriate), please take a moment to speak with wait staff and explain to them how your child likes to be treated (spoken to directly and treated like everyone else - not using baby voices), and other important details you feel are necessary to express.
* Keep your child’s favorite crackers or snack ready in your pockets, bag or purse. I like giving my son a mint or life saver one at a time while we wait for dinner. He enjoys them and it won’t spoil his appetite.
* If you sense a melt-down coming, take your child for a quick walk around the restaurant. We went to Longhorns restaurant recently, and my son was having a hard time at the table. We suspected it was the fact that the restaurant was packed with people (too much stimuli) and noisy, but he started to pinch me, which was a sign of worse to come. My husband took him for a ten minute walk around the restaurant (I texted him when Richie's food arrived). After Richie sat down to his meal, he was perfectly fine again.
* If you notice your child’s drink is almost finished, be sure to ask the waiter/waitress for a refresher drink in advance. Try not to wait until the cup is completely empty.
* When you’re close to finishing your meal, ask your waiter/waitress for the check as soon as you can. This will also help with leaving the restaurant soon after your child is done with his or her meal.
* It's important to reinforce good behavior (use Positive Behavior Supports), by praising and rewarding your child for behaving good at the restaurant. Celebrate with ice-cream (you can also order it to go), or allow your child to choose their dessert (maybe something on the way home). Give your child the opportunity to choose a desired activity to do at home. What ever the reward might be, make sure your child knows he or she is being rewarded for doing so good at the restaurant.
I hope these tips help you and your child enjoy dining at a restaurant. If you have any ideas to share, please send them to me and I’ll pass them along. Remember to keep trying. This is a work in progress and it takes time for our children to get use to doing new things. Good luck!