6 Tips for Eating Out at a Restaurant If Your Kid Has Autism (or Any Form of Neurodiversity)

PureWow editors select every item that appears on this page, and the company may earn compensation through affiliate links within the story. All prices are accurate upon date of publish. You can learn more about the affiliate process here.

d3sign/Getty Images

Lots of people, loud noises, weird smells, new foods and no space to move around… yep, dining out with kids is anything but relaxing. And for families with children on the autism spectrum, it can be even more challenging. But there are ways to make restaurant visits less stressful, says Dawn M. Barclay, travel expert and author of Traveling Different: Vacation Strategies for Parents of the Anxious, the Inflexible, and the Neurodiverse.

In her book, Barclay interviews psychologists, travel agents, parents and more to create a travel guide for families with special needs, with a whole chapter dedicated to restaurant dining. Here are some of her best tips for how to have a successful dining experience. (And by the way, these tips are helpful for all families, not just those with neurodiverse children.)

1. Practice at Home

Do a dry run of eating out at home by looking at menus, pretending to order food, sitting and coloring at the table. Encourage them to stay seated at the table. After all, practice makes perfect.

2. Know Your Child’s Triggers

Avoid restaurants that could be a trigger for your child, whether that’s loud music, busy buffets or something else. Not sure if a particular restaurant is a good choice for your family? Check out patrons’ experiences on online review sites and apps like Some restaurants are autism-friendly but even if they aren’t, be sure to opt for one that is at least child-friendly—skip the fancy bistro. (No child—on the spectrum or not—will stay quiet and sit still for long.)

3. Start Small and Alert the Staff

Call the restaurant in advance or speak with the server as you arrive and explain that you need a quiet corner and for your child’s food to arrive faster if possible (tip: check out the menu in advance so you can order quickly). If you haven’t been to many restaurants with your kid before, consider going during a less busy time and ordering something small, like an appetizer or dessert. Start there and work your way up to a full meal

4. Pack Smart

Travel agent Lisa Bertuccio recommends bringing a go-to bag to both her neurotypical and neurodiverse clients. “This is just a big bag with crayons, paper, fidget toys, playdough and other small items that will keep the child entertained quietly or provide a way to help calm any anxieties,” she says. You can also bring a digital clock to help the child break up waiting time into smaller chunks, plus some snacks to give your kid while they wait for their food. An iPad and headphones may also be helpful.

5. Stay Focused

“Younger children on the spectrum don’t think twice about leaning over and stealing a few onion rings from the guy at the next table or staring down the teenager in a nearby booth,” says Mark Hutten, author of My ASD Child. “Don’t wait until Pepsi has been spilled all over your pants before asking that your youngster’s drink be served in a “to go” cup with a lid.” We’re pretty sure you’re doing this already but it bears repeating—keep an eye on your child throughout the meal.

6. Prepare for the Unexpected

You may do all of the above and things still might not go as planned—the restaurant may be too loud, the lightning may be irritating or it’s just an off day. As such, it can be a good idea to give the restaurant your payment information in advance and let them know that if there’s a meltdown, you may leave abruptly. “If you attempt a dining out experience that fails miserably, just leave early and go home,” advises Hutten. “Do not use the trip home as an opportunity to lecture your child. After he has calmed down, talk with your child about what worked, what didn’t and what everyone can do differently the next time you go out to eat.” And, most importantly, if the restaurant outing does fail, don’t be afraid to try again.

7 Little Ways to Make Travel More Comfortable for a Kid with Autism

img 0936

Executive Editor

Alexia Dellner is an executive editor at PureWow who has over ten years of experience covering a broad range of topics including health, wellness, travel, family, culture and...