Dining out when your child has sensory processing or integration problems, autism

When dining out can lead to sensory overload – Tips from Occupational Therapists

When your child has a sensory processing or sensory integration issue, simple fun activities like going out to dinner can prove a difficult. New places, new smells, new people- it can all be too much for a child who integrates information from their environment in a different way. TMC for Children’s Occupational Therapists, Chau-Tam Sisterman and Joyce Stewart  provide these suggestions for families trying to expand family activities while meeting the needs of their children with sensory processing challenges.

Plan Ahead

  1. Choose a place that is child friendly, but not an over the top sensory experience location. It’s helpful if the restaurant has a quiet corner or booth.
  2. Take a practice run and visit the restaurant to make a “reservation” so it isn’t a brand new place to the child.
  3. Call ahead to find out when they’re busiest and go during a non-busy time.
  4. Check out the menu ahead of time to make sure that there is something your child likes. It also helps to plan what you are ordering.
  5. Talk with your child’s Occupational Therapist about what you plan to do so they can help with a sensory diets, practice the set up for going out to dinners with the child.

Be Prepared

  1. Talk to your child about this outing as part of their daily routine. Explain dinner will be in a different place – no surprises.
  2. Talk about or watch a short video about going out for dinner so the child understand/know the sequence of events. You can talk about the order of events with your child while at the restaurant. ex. what comes after we order our food in the video. Sisterman recommends Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood & Caillou which both have shows about going out for dinner.
  3. You can make a picture board of  sensory experiences to sequence for kids who are visual learners or create a sensory story about eating out. Include expectations and things that might happen.

At the restaurant

  1. Bring a preferred transition object or activity to keep the body and hands busy, as well as any proven sensory supports ex. weighted lap mat.
  2. Bring a few preferred toys/goodies bag and pull out one at a time to stretch the time. If you have high tech gadgets download a favorite show and let the child watch it as a last option.
  3. REMEMBER to enjoy the dinner as much as possible. A child can sense everything. If you are stressed/anxious the child will be stressed and anxious.
  4. Know you can always leave and take home doggie bags if things are absolutely unbearable.
  5. Consider bringing a friend, an “upward model” to distract your child.

 After the experience

  1. Whether it went well or not, talk to your child about the positive aspects of the outing.
  2. If you have done all the prep work and didn’t go well, try again in 2- 3  months and in the mean time keep up with your home program and sensory diet activities!

April is Occupational Therapist Month & Autism Awareness Month. Our Occupational Therapists work with children with autism and other sensory processing challenges to help them reach their potential.