We have had numerous dining fiascos with our autistic son. I cannot tell you how many times I have wished I could become invisible and exit the restaurant, unseen with him. Today, I am glad to report that there is hope for the potential for future public dining for our family.
Just last month something WONDERFUL happened, in a noisy, crowded, unfamiliar, smoky, unpredictable public dining setting. My autistic kid BEHAVED in that setting. FIRST TIME EVER. How possible, you ask?
The event: a BBQ. My dad, who has Parkinson’s Disease, is in a long-term care facility, and last month they had their annual family picnic BBQ. I had to take N with me that day. I would have left him with a family member if that was an option. I knew he would likely not enjoy the BBQ. A popular and well attended event is always flying a yellow flag that only I can see. I go, fully aware that I might have to make a hasty departure, if N cannot cope.
The day of the BBQ it was a beautiful day, there was not a cloud in the sky. When N and I arrived at the home there were quite a few people already there, staking out the indoor tables and outdoor tables in the shade. The smell of the BBQs was thick in the air. There was a one-man-band guy with a guitar and a harmonica, singing and playing his music. N plugged his ears and watched fearfully, making sure that the noise-with-legs object did not get too close to him.
We met my mom and dad there, and found a picnic table with some shade for dad. It was relatively far from the speakers, relatively distant to the food frenzy, safely away from the noise-with-legs. N and I, and dad, waited at the table while mom lined up to get the food. As we waited, another resident and her brother asked if they could join us. I said “yes, of course”. I smiled to hide what I really felt, a sinking feeling….
For the first 15 or 20 mins N stood beside the table, with his hands over his ears. He made small noises to comfort himself. He was anxiously taking in the sights. We encouraged him to sit down at the table. I was expecting him to make a run for it at any moment. However, much to my surprise, the hands released their prisoner ears and soon after, he seat down at the table with dad and me and 2 people he had never met. When mom returned with BBQ hamburgers and hotdogs, and N was sitting calmly at the table.
He sat there, quietly eating and listening and watching, for a long time, for longer than I have ever seen him do. No noises, no stimming, no behaviours. We were all amazed! I was so very pleased. How could this be? Why the unexpected coping with it all. Why was his behavior so much better than anticipated?
The answer came to me some time after the BBQ. We have N in an autism camp that runs Saturdays from September to June. At this camp N goes to a restaurant for lunch every week. Here he is taught how to order food, how to wait for food, how to wait for all the people at the table to finish. How to pay for the food and how to leave. That day at the family picnic BBQ, N read the parameters of the event and decided that he was at a restaurant. So he applied what he had learned from camp about how to act at a restaurant. This was generalization, an unexpected and extraordinary leap of understanding that truly astounded me.
I am of the opinion that it is the repetition of simple, really basic life skills that make the biggest impact on the lives of complex special needs kids and their families. I am blessed to have found a supportive camp that is courageous enough to take 10 to 15 very autistic kids and youth, including my son, into the community to experience repeatedly the social expectations that come along with community living. That experience is wonderful, invaluable, irreplaceable.
Years ago I never would have fathomed not being able to eat at a restaurant. Then I never dreamed that I could ever again eat out, without humiliating apologies, without sacrificing my dignity and self respect. Now I am hopeful that it will be possible to dine successfully in public, once again.
Stay tuned to Lifewithautistickid as we attempt to dine as a family on vacation.