Sometimes I am asked how do we manage to have dinner in a restaurant with Nicholas, our 10 year old very autistic child. I get asked this from people because Nicholas has auditory stim issues – he verbalizes almost constantly and loudly, and also claps alot. The clapping is one of his talents: I have never met anybody who could clap as loudly as nick. Nick-Noise is a constant reality for us in our home. In a restaurant obviously this kind of behaviour is not welcome.
A stim, for those who are not autistic-aware, is short for self stimulation, a repetitive activity that an autistic individual engages in mainly to control the sensory input they are experiencing. Nick has auditory stims because he has problems processing sounds. For most of us we have no trouble distinguishing the source of sounds around us. Our brain processes the sounds and distinguishes between the lawn mower droning a few houses down, the birds chirping at the feeder, a conversation somebody is having on the phone in the next room, and the television monologue in the room. For Nick I believe that all this is mushy in his head, he cannot organize the sounds; and in order to impose some control on the auditory signals coming in, he makes his own sounds: NAAOOOHH, NAW, NO, NOOO, NAAAAAOOOOOO, WAYOO YAOH NOW! etc.
We do not eat often at a restaurant and when we do, there is preparation involved. Here are my tips for an acceptable restaurant experience with a noisy very handicapped child:
1. Select your restaurant carefully. If the restaurant is not “family friendly” don’t even bother. Many if not most people eat out to relax, and that involves either music or quiet. They will not appreciate the presence of a noisy autistic kid making loud random sounds. Even if they are otherwise sympathetic.
2. Go early. We will arrive for dinner sometime between 4:00pm and 5:00 pm. Once 6:00pm occurs we find the crowd under point (1) starts to arrive, one that is decidedly not compatible with us. (quiet, relaxing, peaceful).
3. Bring distractors. If my son is particularly noisy and disruptive, I like to have something on hand to quiet him down, even if it is for the brief period of time while we wait for the food to arrive. For me a bag of sour jujubes is the perfect antidote to an unwelcome distraction with legs. I just keep feeding him one at a time, slowly. It takes him awhile to chew them and while he is busy chewing, he is NOT busy making noise. Another option – plain popcorn. This has the added advantage that it will not fill him up, he will still want his dinner. Again if you provide the snack one popped kernal at a time, you can keep your autistic kid quiet potentially from the ordering to the arrival of your meal.
4. Frequent bathroom visits. I have found that this breaks up the monotony and confusion of sitting at the table for long periods of time. I get the other family members to take turns to be involved with my son’s visits to the bathroom. He can wash his hands, and learn to dry them with the scary blower machine, much faster with multiple role models.
5. Bring toys, books, anything familiar that your autistic kid will relate to. This is especially important if this is your first time visiting the restaurant. Bring Thomas the Tank Engine, or whatever anchors your child, whatever is his or her security. They will be bombarded with sights and sounds that they have not experienced previously, and they may need something to hold on to, their autistic teddy bear.
6. Revisit the same restaurant, if the experience went well. Once you have found a successful restaurant-victim, take advantage of the positive experience your autistic kid had previously. You may find that you do not need to use as many strategies to get through the dinner the second time around.
7. Avoid bad-experience restaurants. My experience is – you previously had a negative experience at a restaurant, your autistic kid will have that elephant memory for it and will start to protest as soon as the restaurant comes into view. And the restaurant may remember YOU too! OMG it is THAT FAMILY!
8. Bring the IPOD. I have an ipod nano with my sons favorite music on it. I also have on it tracks of his verbal stims. I use an old fashionned headset with a strap over his head and cushionned external earphones (not ear buds which he does not like stuck in his ears). The IPOD drowns out confusing auditory stimulation from the restaurant and helps make my son quiet. Typical male, he loves to listen to himself best of all!
9. We created a social story to explain to our son that the food at other people’s table is NOT Nick’s food. On one occasion, while we were getting seated at a restaurant, Nick went up to the table of another family and started helping himself to somebody’s french fries! We review this with him before we go into any place, restaurant or otherwise, where people might be eating!
I hope that this helps your family have a dinner out with autism!