By: Laura Petix, MS OTR/LEPISODE 117


Going out to eat at your favorite restaurant might be the highlight of your week – you can eat your favorite food, skip the meal prep and clean up, and enjoy the company of family or friends.

If you have a neurodivergent child, you know that the restaurant setting – while so exciting and fun for some – can also cause dysregulation from the multi-sensory experience that occurs when eating at a restaurant.

What you’ll hear in this episode:

Sensory challenges at restaurants

What do I mean when I say that dining out is a multi-sensory experience? In simple terms, it just means that multiple senses are being engaged (and possibly overstimulated) at the same time. The following are some examples of sensory experiences while at a restaurant:

So while your neurodivergent child may not be impacted by these specific sensory experiences on a day-to-day basis, experiencing them all at the same time may lead to sensory overload.

Other causes of dysregulation at restaurants

Restaurants can have a lot of other experiences that may contribute to dysregulation for your neurodivergent child like sitting/waiting, being out of their routine, and social norms or expectations that are more challenging for them.

You may also be wondering what these can look like for neurodivergent children:

Strategies for going out to eat

If you’ve made it this far then you’ve learned a lot about what contributes to dysregulation when going to a restaurant with your neurodivergent child, but now I want to help you prepare for how to go out to eat together.

Preparing ahead of time

First, you’ll need to consider your child’s individual sensory needs. 

Are they someone who craves movement and input? If so, make sure that you meet those sensory needs before heading to the restaurant. This will give them the opportunity to feel regulated and ready for all of the sitting and waiting when you arrive.

Does your child experience more anxiety or nervousness in new settings? Consider doing some research about the restaurant, looking at pictures, or looking at the menu to make some choices before you’ve entered the new space together. Eliminating the need for more pressure and choices at the restaurant may help your child stay more regulated throughout the meal. 

Does your child benefit from role playing or social stories? You could try these strategies when preparing for your meal away from home. If you choose to role play, you could practice the social expectations, talk about the menu options, and practice waiting. Creating a social story can also fill in some of the gaps in our child’s knowledge about the sensory experience, the procedures and even the feelings they might experience.

Things you may consider bringing with you

When preparing to go out to eat, it’s important to think about what you might want to bring along that may help your child have a better experience. This can include:

Tips while at the restaurant

Now that you’ve prepared ahead of time and gathered everything you’ll need, it’s time to go out to eat! Some of my favorite strategies for supporting neurodivergent kids in restaurants are grounded in accommodating and supporting their needs throughout the experience even before they may appear to be struggling or dysregulated.

This might look like ordering right when you sit down, moving around outside while waiting for food, or playing brain games. Some of my favorite brain games are “I Spy” or “Guess Who” because these types of games engage the area of the brain that regulates impulse control, patience, emotional regulation, and so much more.

Want even MORE tips on dining out with a neurodivergent child? Check out this thread with tons of amazing ideas from real parents in the community!

My biggest tip to leave you with is to have realistic expectations

Going out to a restaurant is challenging for all children across all neurotypes so we can take a deep breath and ground ourselves in our compassion for how challenging dining out is for neurodivergent kids. I know I’m not alone in finding this challenging when you are hoping to have a really good time, but if you start from a place of understanding why this is challenging for our neurodivergent children then you can adjust, accommodate, and support them throughout the experience.

Episode Links

Why are restaurants so hard for my neurodivergent child and how can I help them?
Laura Petix 0:00 So what I'm saying is whether it's because your child is overwhelmed from too much sensory input at once, or your child has unmet sensory craving needs, or maybe a mix of both, you can have a child who's sensitive and also craves different kinds of sensory input. The point is, they...

Laura Petix 0:00 So what I’m saying is whether it’s because your child is overwhelmed from too much sensory input at once, or your child has unmet sensory craving needs, or maybe a mix of both, you can have a child who’s sensitive and also craves different kinds of sensory input. The point is, they may be experiencing dysregulation at the restaurant, which is what causes the behaviors like hyperactivity, whining this moodiness and just being uncooperative. Speaker 1 0:33 Welcome to the sensory wise solutions podcast for parents, where parents can get real actionable strategies to support kids with sensory processing disorder. I’m Laura, OT and mom to Lilyana a sensory sensitive kid who inherited my anxiety and my love for all things Disney. Consider me your new ot mom, bestie. I know my stuff. But I also know what it’s really like in the trenches of parenting a child with sensory processing disorder. Okay, mom, enough about me. Let’s try the podcast. Laura Petix 1:08 Hey, everyone, welcome back to the podcast. Today we are back with another highly requested episode based on a question that I get asked pretty often, which is Laura, do you have any tips for eating out at restaurants with neurodivergent? Kids? Yes, yes, I do. And in today’s episode, we are going to spend some time first, peeling back the layers and talking about some of the main triggers at the restaurants that contribute to the stress of eating out with our neurodivergent kids. Then we are going to talk about what things you can do about it. And I’m going to cover everything from mindset shifts to accommodations to some quote hacks, or strategies and things that you can do to prepare. So let’s get started. Let’s talk about all the things that make eating at a restaurant difficult for neurodivergent children. Some of these are probably going to be obvious, but I want to really call out as many of them as possible because I bet there are some things that you didn’t realize, are hard for your child, or maybe just hearing them all spelled out and like making a mental checklist or like inventory of it in your brain gives you a little bit more compassion for them. And maybe you can help other members of your family understand why eating at a restaurant is so hard for your children. Let’s just jump right in and talk about sensory. So first of all, there’s sensory overload. We are all pretty familiar with this one, right? A restaurant is a setting that I would describe as multi sensory, which means that it combines and overlaps multiple sensory inputs at once, which can be tricky for neurodivergent nervous systems to process and modulate. First, there’s sounds, there’s table conversations, music, background chatter, clinking of glassware, babies crying or laughing, people cheering or singing, there’s the screech of the chairs being pulled out, there are a ton of sounds going on. And you don’t need to necessarily be sensitive to each of those sounds individually. But when you’re layering them together, and other sensory inputs that we’re going to talk about, too, when you’re layering all that together, it’s really easy to see how the nervous system can get overwhelmed. On top of sounds, we have things like visual input, there’s the overhead lights, there’s screens around them, there’s visual clutter, there’s people moving around, there’s reflections from shiny things, there’s sunlight, maybe that’s in their eye from the window. There’s a lot of that. Then we also have the tactile input. There’s stickiness from residue on the table. If you have a child who’s particularly sensitive to fabric or clothing and they had to wear certain clothes in order to leave the house or to come to this particular restaurant. There’s also the main tactile input from the food textures or touching a glass with condensation on it like the little things are not little to neurodivergent kids who are sensory sensitive or tactile, sensitive. Fun fact about me. Well, maybe not fun, but definitely a quirk I have this very random, very specific, not not so much fear but like disgust is how I would describe it with sitting next to walls. So not claustrophobic, not like when I’m in a small space, but yes, I also don’t like that. But I also I just don’t like sitting next to a wall like a public wall. So if we’re like sitting at a restaurant and we’re going to booth, I refuse to be the person sitting closest to the wall. I also hate sitting next to Windows on planes or buses, I just have this thing about public walls. And I feel like they’re dirty, or there’s like dried food on them or something. And I don’t like my skin being near public walls. So that’s sort of my own thing. I don’t expect there to be a lot of people who share that, but as a kid, I would be so picky about where I would sit at the table and would ask them to move us to a different table, if it was a booth and my parents would make me sit on the inside. To this day, I still avoid walls. As much as possible. It’s a running joke with anybody who knows me in person, when we go out to eat, they always like oh yeah, you’re not gonna sit next to the wall. If I sit at a restaurant in a booth, where it’s like a single booth, you know, it’s like only meant for two people. And it’s a very short booth seat, I will literally like sit on the very edge of my booth seat with like, my body facing outwards, and like eat sideways, like I just cannot. Okay, that was a lot of sharing. But just wanted to show you there are a lot of subtle things. If your child didn’t know how to express certain things, you never know what it is that’s triggering them. So aside from that, there’s also things like smells, right, there’s the obvious one, the smells of different foods, but there’s also body odor, perfume, smells of people walking past you, if you’re seated next to a bathroom or a door, the smell of hands. So there’s a specific kind of hand soap that I that would that I would smell and it would make me so nauseous. And it was one of like the like commercially produced ones that was in a lot of the, like the therapy clinics that I would work at, they would use that. And then there was a restaurant that I went to, and I immediately recognized that and I just could not tolerate that smell. So okay, now we’re still in the sensory category. But on the other end of the threshold, we were just talking about people with low sensory thresholds who are sensitive to some sensory input. But you might have a child or someone in your family who’s on the other end of the threshold, so maybe someone who needs more sensory input. And so being expected or being told to sit down, sit still and wait for food and in a confined space makes it difficult for them to get that sensory, that sensory input that they crave that their nervous system needs. Like maybe they prefer to run and move their body. Maybe they like bouncing or vocalizing or stimming with their hands. And it’s really hard for them to do that to the effect that they want to when they are seated at a restaurant. And one of the main sensory systems that is the least talked about, but plays a huge role in regulation, especially at restaurants is interoception. If you want to learn more about interoception, go to Episode 61 and 72. But real quick interoception is the processing of our internal sensations. So this includes things like our breath rate, our heartbeat, our stomach, so if our stomach is full, or if our stomach is hungry, or if we are thirsty. So all those internal sensations are interoception. And if you have a child who is sensitive to the interoception sense, they might have a hard time with waiting for their food, or any other emotional regulation challenges can be linked to interoception. So what I’m saying is whether it’s because your child is overwhelmed from too much sensory input at once, or your child has unmet sensory craving needs or maybe a mix of both. You can have a child who’s sensitive and also craves different kinds of sensory input. The point is, they may be experiencing dysregulation at the restaurant, which is what causes the behaviors like hyperactivity, weightiness, moodiness and just being uncooperative. Now let’s talk about some of the social challenges that come with bringing an neurodivergent child to a restaurant. There are a lot of unwritten social norms and expectations at a restaurant that are truthfully just not really inclusive of neurodivergent. Folks, you’re expected to wait quietly, patiently. You’re expected to share space with others sometimes sit very close to others depending on the seating arrangements of the restaurant. You’re expected to communicate a certain way and have manners and be polite. Eat and most likely engage in some sort of small talk with others near you, or like the waiter or the hostess. There’s also expected and appropriate ways to eat your food. And there’s unexpected and inappropriate ways to eat your food according to social standards and social norms, you are supposed to use the utensils a certain way and not eat with your hands at some restaurants. Unless, of course, you’re at a certain cultural restaurant that is okay with that. But there are a lot of unwritten social and cultural norms and expectations that can sometimes make it hard for a neurodivergent person to feel comfortable in. There is also the sense of just being out of routine, I talk a lot about neurodivergent kids being impacted by just little subtle changes in their routines by having like different events or activities to go to, and going out to dinner is small, but it’s something that is out of the ordinary, or at least not something that you do every day. So remember that like, if, if that upsets your child to be out of routine, that makes sense. But some kids like my daughter loves going out to eat, and they get excited and happy about being out of the house. And it’s something new and different. But even those positive, fun, exciting feelings can still bring about dysregulation and the behaviors that come with dysregulation. Now let’s talk about waiting. And also sitting, I’m going to combine these together, I sort of mentioned this earlier, when I was talking about sensory needs not being met. So some kids are wiggly, and they need to move or be up and about. But remember, a couple of weeks ago, maybe you listen to the episode, maybe you didn’t. But a couple of weeks ago, we were talking about how postural control or lack thereof can make sitting at a table without proper support difficult. So if you have a child who’s no longer sitting in a highchair, and they’re expected to sit in a regular like restaurant booth, or a regular restaurant chair, and they have postural control or postural endurance difficulties, you might see them like leaning over on the table a lot or leaning on you or sitting underneath the table. Just like leaning and just like constantly writhing and wriggling around in their seat literally anything but sitting still at the table. And it might not be because they want to move and wiggle. But it might be because sitting upright for extended periods of time may be difficult and tiring for them. So if that sounds familiar, you can go back to Episode 113, for more information on that. So that’s just sitting there, right, and then just the idea of waiting, just pure waiting, we know this can be so hard for kids. And of course there is a ton of waiting at the restaurant, it’s even hard for some adults to wait. So all of those reasons, either individually, or combined could be caused for dysregulation and we didn’t even talk about the food itself, which is the obvious one, if you have a picky eater at about 50 points to the dysregulation tab. Even if they have their safe food there. Maybe they’re picky about seeing other foods or smelling other foods in the area as well. Not to mention, when the nervous system is dysregulated and is experiencing fight or flight, it can impact their appetite, which further makes the whole eating experience just overall more stressful as parents. So what can we do about it, we’re going to talk a little bit about strategies and ways to prepare and support your kids at the restaurant. But remember, the tips that I’m going to give you some of that may sound like overkill, some of it may sound like it’s a lot just for having a meal out of the house. Of course pick and choose what you think is applicable for your family. I always like to create tips intended for the family who might need the most support so I can include as much ideas as possible. And if you are somewhere in the middle or somewhere on the other end where you don’t need that much support. Maybe you only need one or two of these tips. So let’s talk about ways to prepare before the restaurant. So proactive sensory strategies. I talk about this all the time. This is very helpful, especially if you have a child who has a high threshold for sensory input, which means they need more sensory input in order for them to feel regulated. You want to try to front load them with movement with heavy work with tactile input or anything else that their nervous systems specifically craves before going to the restaurant. Now, I don’t go into specifics for what regulation strategies to do because every child is different and what your child needs is going to be different from someone else’s. But my point is proactively providing them the sensory input that you think they’re going to crave at the restaurant is helpful. So do it before the restaurant. social stories, social stories are always a great solution or thing to try a tool to have to prepare kids for any setting or event or activity, and you would include behaviors that you would expect them to have at a restaurant, you could include things that they might see things that they might say things that they might hear, basically, or calling out any of the challenges that they might come across, and what they can do when they feel uncomfortable. In the social story, and your child is the main character. If you want to learn more about social stories, you can head to Episode 85, which dives deep into what they are and how to create them. This next tip might not apply to everyone, but it is to talk to any other relatives or friends who might be going with you to the restaurant. So if you’re going with extended family, you might find it helpful to have conversation with them. Before you go to the restaurant about behaviors that they might see, maybe you’re setting some boundaries in advance about conversations or comments that you anticipate will come up. So for example, if you have an aunt who judges your child’s food choices, or that they’re using a screen at the table, again, depending on your relationship dynamic, like some of you might just go into it like knowing that and you’re setting yourself up with your own, like internal mantras to ignore it. And you might not find it necessary to communicate with others about it. But I still wanted to mention this because sometimes it’s helpful. Like I like talking to other people, and sort of like warning them about behaviors they might see that might make them feel uncomfortable, like hey, you know, we’re going through this thing and she gets really upset when we have to share space with people, she might have a meltdown, just know like, it’s totally fine, we’re handling it, you don’t have to offer help, like we might leave the restaurant early, like just a heads up. So that might be helpful. Another tip is, this is something that’s like self explanatory, but in the interest of being thorough with all the tips, here’s your reminder to look at the menu in advance, or bring food just to make sure that there’s something that your child will actually eat. If you’re like me, you might not even risk it. Like my daughter is specific with how certain pizza sauce tastes, and the shape of mac and cheese noodles. So even if we go to a restaurant with a typical kids menu with chicken tenders with fries with pizza with mac and cheese, it’s not a guarantee that she’ll be able to eat to like her fullness. And so if we’re going to a new restaurant where she hasn’t tried the food, even if I know they have a kids menu, I typically pre feed her or bring her own food from home. And I just let her order like a side like a fries or something small so that there’s no risk of her not liking a certain food. Now let’s talk about some things that you can bring to the restaurant. So first suggestion is headphones, especially for kids who are sensitive to noise, or you could bring bluetooth headphones to listen to for your child to have listened to music or audiobooks or anything like that. Of course bring any play toys, play kids books, drawing boards, crayons, tactile fidgets anything like you name it. I love following Miriam at mother could on Instagram, she always has the best ideas for like travel hacks to bring things on planes, but everything that she brings on a plane I feel like you could bring to a restaurant so she’s my go to for like ideas for entertaining kids. But Liliana is pretty happy with anything to draw. So it’s pretty simple for us. You can also bring or create visual schedules or any other visual tools to help them sort of understand or know what to expect at the restaurant. So, for example, a really simple one could just be making a checklist of things that your child can check off as it happens. So on this checklist, which is kind of like a schedule, but also a sequence of events. It would be things like wait to be seated, sit down at the table, look at the menu, order food, wait for food, eat for food, order dessert, go to the bathroom, then leave and you could have them like check off the box as each thing happens. So they just know what to expect and they see you progressing through the sequence of going to a restaurant And then lastly, we bring your own your child’s own snack or safe foods if applicable. As I mentioned previously, you could also bring gum or mints to keep their mouth busy before the food gets there. I never leave the house without gum. It is such a great sensory tool. Lastly, just a few tips to manage at the table. So the first one might seem pretty obvious, we’re used to doing this when we have little toddlers. But as they get older, we forget that this is an option as well as just limit the time sitting at the table. Whether this means that you let them stand instead of sit while you’re waiting for the food or if you are with another adult, and you take turns going for a walk or sitting outside with them until the food comes. Another tip is to play brain games. So if your child is not entertained by any of the toys or things like that, and you’re wanting to pass the time with them, and not use a screen. I like playing brain games and Liliana loves these games. I mean things like I Spy, or math games, or spelling games, or what rhymes with this, or guess who with Disney characters as a family favorite. These games are not only helpful to distract them from like being bored of waiting. But it also helps keep their higher level brain on board longer, which we need to access things like impulse control and patience and emotional regulation. Another tip is to this might be kind of hard. But if you suspect that the postural issues are what’s making it hard for them to sit at the table. See if you can DIY any sort of footstool or foot rest where they can put their feet on and have their back supported as well. So maybe you put a jacket rolled up behind their back, you can always ask for a booster. But I know some kids refuse to sit in the booster. And that also doesn’t really help with the feet having a place to rest. So you could ask if the restaurant has a footstool or something to place their feet on. You can also bring a theraband which is pretty portable, you could find those on Amazon and wrap it around the legs of the chair if they’re sitting in a standard chair with legs, and that way their feet have something to rest on. Lastly, but probably most importantly, have realistic expectations. Sitting at restaurants can be hard for all kids of all ages of all neuro types. And when considering neurodivergent kids, it really can be quite a challenge. And rather than being disappointed that they can’t sit still, or meet certain neurotypical social cultural norms or expectations. Let’s just try to be compassionate and accommodate them as best as we can. I know I’m probably preaching to the choir to all of those listening now. Maybe this is more for your partners or other restaurant patrons who need this reminder. But I wanted to mention that just to remind everyone out there. All right, I hope this episode was helpful for you. I will be back next week. Speaker 1 23:20 If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider rating it and leaving a review which helps other parents find me as well. Want to learn more from me. I share tons more over on Instagram at the OT butterfly. See you next time. Transcribed by




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Laura Petix, MS OTR/L

I’m an enneagram 6, so my brain is constantly moving. My OT lenses never turn off and I can’t “un-see” the sensory and other developmental skills that go in to literally every activity. I love taking what I see and breaking it down into simple terms so parents can understand what goes into their child’s behavior and skills.

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