• Cory Morrison

What autism challenges might occur at a restaurant?

As patios reopened in Ontario yesterday, you may wonder how well your child with autism can handle restaurants. It's no longer only about drive-thrus, deliveries and takeouts. With COVID-19 fatigue, you may want to have a family dinner at a restaurant again. Therefore, you may need to be aware of the following:

Strong restaurant smells

People on the spectrum may react strongly to smells. It will be important for you to know if certain restaurants or foods trigger your child more than others.

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When I was younger, my family would take me to Pizza Hut. I didn't like the smell inside the restaurant. It made me feel sick. I recall one time when I was five; we had relatives visit our house. We went to our closest Pizza Hut, which is no longer around. As soon as we went in, I was bursting into tears and nearly had a meltdown. We had to leave. I recall going there several more occasions until I finally got used to the smell. However, I'm still not a Pizza Hut fan to this day.

Noisy environments

According to WebMD, some people with autism may not like loud noises. When they expose themselves to heavy noise, they may block their ears or engage in self-stimulatory behaviours.

To prevent a restaurant experience from being too overwhelming, you can maybe try taking your child to a restaurant during a less busy time of day, such as before supper on the weekend.

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I never had issues with noises at a restaurant. Many people talking and loud music were never a problem for me.

Being picky

Many autistic people can be picky eaters. According to Autism Speaks, some children may have stomach issues with certain foods or simply do not like a food's texture. However, these people may not always express these food sensitivities.

Autism Speaks also recommends that a child should try these foods many times. This way, you can see if they eventually like the food. My parents would often try this with me as a child. In most cases, it would work for me.

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In my case, when I was younger, I wouldn't eat anything but chicken fingers with fries and pizza at restaurants. However, once I got older, I started to eat foods such as wraps, sandwiches, salads, quesadillas, pasta, burgers and more. Despite this, I still find that I often like to eat the same foods repeatedly at certain restaurants. McDonald's? I either get a chicken wrap or a McChicken with fries. I'm not a Big Mac person.

Table habits

According to Spectrum, people with autism often engage in routines such as stimming. Self-stimulatory behaviours were a major obstacle for me when I was younger.

A patio in Oakville, Ont. (Photo credit: Cory Morrison)
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Whenever I drank milk or juice when dining in restaurants, I would make squirting noises with my straw. I vaguely remember what I think might have been at Swiss Chalet one time when I was around seven or eight; my parents told me we would leave early if I kept doing that with my straw. This situation pressured me to stop with this habit.

Teaching your child how to pay

Jenny Crones, a certified behavioural analyst, says that money is often a difficult concept for people with autism because they are concrete thinkers and learners.

Crones recommends that using social stories, real money instead of toy money, money-related games and practicing at stores would be useful strategies to help a child with autism learn money early.

In my case, when I was five or six, I remember that I kept thinking that a cashier's responsibility was to give me money. I was technically half-correct because they give out change. However, my parents and ABA therapists had to remind me that I needed to pay for certain items and then wait for my change.

Applying these strategies to restaurants and using cash and a debit card, you should also teach your child skills such as reading a bill.


Going back to a restaurant should be easy for these better days if you consider the above factors.

You may also like: What should I expect during the COVID-19 vaccine process?

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