Beth and I go out to eat a lot. True it is important social skills training, but I also hate to cook, so let’s just say kiddo has had a lot of practice. When we go out for a meal now, as Katy Perry so eloquently puts it, “it’s no big deal.” No tantrums, no meltdowns, we can eat a fair number of places, and she is pretty good at waiting. But in truth it is a big deal that we can just go out to eat at a quiet restaurant or a busy one (I still avoid the really loud places). It is a big deal I brought her to breakfast with me and she occupied herself long enough to let me talk to other autism moms. It is a big deal that on a whim I decided to have Chinese food for dinner last night while hubby is traveling for work and that we just walked in, were seated next to an older couple (the only people in the restaurant), and we all enjoyed our meal without huge incident. It is BIG.
Well, How Did I Get Here?
Yes, that was a total steal from Talking Heads Once in a Lifetime, but I really was thinking of that line while sitting at dinner with her last night. How did we get here? How is it so much easier now? Gone are the days where I am dragging a screaming, overwhelmed, frustrated kid out of a restaurant. Then I thought, what does it look like to the couple sitting next to me? Answer: I am still working very hard and they can see that. Everything is set up for success, I am constantly anticipating and heading off things before they become issues, and throughout the meal I am talking to her to guide her through and to orient her to what is happening. Is it an accident that we went to restaurant that is dead quiet during the week, we are sitting next to an entertaining fish tank, there are white Christmas lights everywhere, and they have something on the menu I know she will eat? No. Every single accommodation and strategy I use was born out of a hell of a lot of experimentation, failure, and small steps forward. I don’t wait for problems to happen, I head them off. BUT, I don’t think this would be possible at all if we didn’t have these four things going for us:
1. Now she is generally quiet by nature and tends to withdraw instead of freak out when she begins to get overwhelmed. In short, I got lucky here. Although it makes it hard to read her signs when she withdraws as she starts to get overwhelmed, I am getting better at it. I know when she is reaching her limit with some subtle indications she gives before she just yells “go to the car!” But I’ll take “difficult to read” signs any day over what some others have to deal with. During our meals out, I always think of others I know who have great difficulty taking their kids out to restaurants. Yes, I fully appreciate how lucky I am here. Damn lucky.
2. Beth has enough language to tell me what she wants. A little language leads to negotiation, which helps waiting. No we can’t go to the car yet, we are going to get the fortune cookie and pay first. She gets that now. A little language goes a very long way to defusing outbursts and meltdowns.
2. Developmental pica is saving the day! It is not often that I thank her pica (eating non-food items like lip gloss, sand, soaps, and straight chili pepper from the pantry-yikes!), but lately her pica has been calming a bit and changing to a love of different foods and drinks. Also, thanks to the sensory reasons surrounding her pica, any warm, cold, or bubbly drink helps occupy her, as does munching on ice, so I use those all the time to help her wait while we are out to eat. For example, recently she pounded two cups of decaf coffee at a breakfast with autism moms (and they were highly amused!). She ate lots of ice last night at dinner. Diet caffeine free soda or seltzer water is a God send at places. Thank God for pica!
3. I discovered a coat helps in a restaurant. As you can see Beth is sporting a black rain coat in the picture above. Coats calm her flapping and help her sit- a discovery I finally pieced together with all our restaurant outings over various seasons. The rain coat material is the best because it is stiffer and provides some resistance when she raises her hands, so she just prefers not to flap then for competing sensory reasons (I think).
The Work is Worth It
As I was sitting with Beth last night at dinner…occasionally telling her to sit on her bottom, try munching on ice to occupy herself, telling her the food was coming soon, telling her to look at the lights and fish because it will help her wait, I eventually asked her what her favorite fish was and asked her what she was looking at. It is a wonderful thing she is starting to answer those questions and tell me what is going on in her head. I completely appreciate how far we have come.
Then a mom and her daughter come in, and the girl is a year or so younger than Beth. They sit near us and the conversation the mom has with her daughter blows me away. The language is so back and forth and so rapid. Of course I get a tinge of sadness, as always when I observe moms and daughters conversing, but now it sort of passes through. Then I launch into observation mode and take mental notes. She let her child order…my kid can order her friend rice next time. Her kid can’t keep off her knees…okay, so that part was Beth being developmentally appropriate so I will back off on that instruction. They go into more depth talking about the fish and I get some ideas about what else we can talk about. See…the work never ends. But in the end, the work is worth it.