All parents dread taking their kids to restaurants when they’re young. A zillion questions run through their minds. “Will he behave? What if there isn’t anything on the menu she likes? Will he spill his drink?”
The normal questions.
When you have a child with autism, this list of questions gets longer and the stress levels are high…high…high. I’ll never forget when we went to Red Robin with Braden and Madison and Grandma after a Wiggles concert in Portland, Oregon. Yes, the Wiggles. We do anything for our kids! We were all riding high from the concert, singing “Big Red Car” and loving the fact that Madison got so excited that she rushed the stage to touch Murray. (Security had to bring her back). Famished from all that excitement, we found a Red Robin and went in.
I think we were so excited that we forgot about our normal restaurant stress. We sat down and got our menus. And then the guessing game began.
“Braden, do you want chicken nuggets?”
“NO CHICKEN NUGGETS!”
“Do you want spaghetti?”
People start looking over. A sweat bead slowly makes it’s way from my forehead to my chin.
“How about pizza?”
Then he screams, beats his head on the table, and grabs Madison’s hair and pulls it from the roots. Madison starts screaming.
Mike and I give each other “the look” and we pick up our things, grab the kids, and scramble out of the restaurant, eyes to the floor so we can’t see the looks we are getting from the strangers in the room.
Many parents have been in this situation. It’s not strictly an “autism thing,” but here was the difference. Braden was upset because he could not communicate what he wanted to eat, and obviously, our guesses were not cutting it. Braden melted down because of the sensory stimulation in the room (plus from the concert), the smells in the restaurant, bright lights, people singing happy birthday, and the inability to communicate what he wanted.
Braden wasn’t throwing a tantrum. He was having a meltdown. Here is an article that helps explain the difference.
That incident was one of many we had in restaurants. That particular one was when he was three, but they also happened when he was five, six, seven…twelve, thirteen. Basically, the restaurant stress never goes away.
We go to a lot of restaurants. Are we gluttons for punishment? No. We’ve just figured some things out. And so has Braden!
- We focus on the drink first. Braden needs to know a drink is coming as that’s his routine. So if we ask him what type of food he wants first, he gets upset. So, drink order first…then food.
- We basically go to familiar restaurants. We know what’s on the menu, so when we walk in, Braden’s order choices are limited. At the Mexican restaurant, he orders breakfast (go figure). At Korean, he chooses between chicken and cashews or green curry. At McDonalds it’s always chicken nuggets. So, we’ve got the system down.
- If we go to a new restaurant, we don’t make promises of food beforehand. We just say, “Let’s go to a restaurant.” We order a drink and go from there. It usually works, especially if there is a menu with pictures.
- We also understand Braden’s sensory system much better, so we don’t put him into high sensory environments if we don’t need to do so.
But here’s the thing. We have never been the parents to live in a cave because of autism. We try to expose Braden to “life” as much as we possibly can. We want him to be adaptable to change and understand the world around him.
Here are two restaurant “successes” I’d like to share:
The first is that Braden LOVES happy hour. On Fridays I wake him up and say, “Braden it’s Friday.” And he says, “Happy Hour!” Braden sits amongst our group on Fridays as we chat, consume adult beverages, and commiserate about our weeks. He smiles, drinks Sprite and eats french fries. He just takes it all in.
The second thing is a small victory we had last week at the Korean restaurant. Mike said, “Braden do you want the chicken and cashews?” Braden started to say yes, but then stopped. He grabbed the menu and pointed at the green curry and said, “I want green curry, please.” Even the waitress was surprised. Her smile was as bright and shining as ours. I think I even cried.
Five words. Five beautiful words that showed us that our boy can and wants to communicate. I think they are my new favourite words:
“I want green curry, please.”