6 Tips for Waiting Tables with Special Needs Families

Brynna is a Ninja. No, really, she is lightening fast and if you get get your plate or drink remotely within arm’s reach, it’s going in the floor. She isn’t mad, she ins’t unruly, she’s autistic and doesn’t really understand all that is happening around her. You are in her space and it wigs her out. It’s that simple.

I wish I had a dollar for every time someone at a church fellowship, restaurant, or family gathering came by to lovingly speak to Brynna (which is greatly appreciated, by the way) and she, in one lightening fast movement, swatted their coffee/tea/taco plate/dessert into the floor.

Everyone is very gracious, and that, too is appreciated. They clean it up trying hard to make sure we don’t feel bad, but we do. At the same time, I feel obligated to educate our waitstaff and others bringing food that she is apparently a genetic descendant of the Flash and she will toss your plate of goodies before any of us can stop it. So, when we go out to eat we are constantly trying to keep her from snatching the drinks, food, chips and salsa, or the waitstaff’s ticket book.

One time at a popular steakhouse, a poor unsuspecting waiter came walking by with a ticket book hanging out of their apron, a temptation far too juicy to pass up. Before we could even register the visual movement, Brynna had reached behind her, snatched the ticket book and tossed it in the air … tickets and tips everywhere. The ensuing energy around the toss sent her into what some recognize as a full-blown autistic meltdown. We left the restaurant just after our drinks came out.

I was looking forward to that Blooming Onion, too!

So here are some tips for waitstaff or unsuspecting fellowship servers to make the experience enjoyable for everyone.

Give them plenty of space

Many special needs kiddos, not just autistic ones, need plenty of space to function. Especially if they are sitting down and you are standing. This is particularly problematic for waitstaff carrying trays of drinks or food.

In our case, we can’t explain to Brynna that these people are here to serve us and are friendly. All she realizes is they are towering over her carrying some foreign object that looms over her space. A meltdown or strike is inevitable.

What’s strange, even though every time they approach and often after telling them she is a grabber, they bring the drinks and the food directly to her end of the table to hand them out! Something’s going on the floor!

On this same note, if you are using one of those handy collapsible tray supports, don’t put it anywhere near my daughter unless you want the kitchen to make the food all over again. I’ll feel terrible, she will be embarrassed and melt down, and you will be frustrated. Let’s just avoid that altogether.

Don’t seat us in the middle of the restaurant

When our family comes in, I almost always expect them to add gratuity. There are seven of us even though Brynna isn’t going to eat. It’s a big crowd and the booths don’t usually work. That leaves the tables. One of the worst things you can do is sit our 7 top out in the middle of the restaurant where unsuspecting patrons and other waitstaff are in the danger zone for Ninja Swipes and the occasional flying wet french fry.

Put us in the corner against a wall. That lets us use the wall in a genius move of defense, protecting the table, the food, and other patrons. Booths are amazing because we can contain the energy, but if the party is too large for that, ask if we can split the group. We may not wish to, but sometimes that is the best answer of all. It lowers the number of people altogether, which can lower anxiety levels and make for an easier eating event. Understand she may be loud.

Especially for many autistic children, noise and outbursts are part of the game. Just roll with it. And don’t give in to other patrons who want you to tell us to keep our kids quiet. The truth is, if we could, we would, but they deserve socialization as much as anyone.

We’ve never really been asked to leave anywhere that I can remember, like the family in this article, but we have certainly gotten awkward stares, blown breath, rolled eyes, and the occasional “Can’t you keep her quiet?” I would tell what we responded, but some of you aren’t ready for that conversation, and no, it did not include curse words.

I do remember one time at Copper Mountain when Brynna could no longer handle the 12 degree cold and had a meltdown so long and loud she cleared every single customer out of the upstairs bar which opened up over the sitting area where Tammy was trying to calm her down. That story is one I’ll have to tell you one day.

Bring their food first and early

When we go out we almost always order an extra order of fries or something for Brynna to much on. It keeps her busy and helps her not to melt down and ruin dinner for everyone. The time waiting for everyone’s food to come is a really difficult time. Ask the parents if they need some fries or something to help keep them busy while we wait. Then, don’t wait until the food is ready, go ahead and bring it out. You’ll be our favorite.

Talk to my kid

If you’ve never been around special needs children, we understand it can be an awkward exchange and you don’t always know what to do. I would simply say recognize they are different, but treat them with compassion and kindness. Say hello, offer a high five, something. Don’t just pretend they aren’t there. I promise, this will help your tip because we know we are harder than the average table.

Hurry up with the check

I can’t speak for everyone, but for us, the time after everyone is finished is particularly troublesome. By the time a meal is finished, we are pushing the envelope of what our child can endure. Even if they’ve done well the entire time, their ability to hold that pattern is limited.

When you see the meal winding up, go ahead and bring us the check so we can take care of that sooner rather than later. Besides, it’s in your best interest anyway to turn tables faster.

Let us clean up our mess

In our case Brynna loves french fries, but she doesn’t always eat the whole thing. Sometimes she chews it a bit then out it comes and to the floor it goes. We know the mess this is making, but we will clean it up and we are OK with doing it. It isn’t your job to clean up half-chewed french fries from my 12 year old. (It isn’t your job to clean up half-eaten french fries from anyone’s baby either, but that’s a different post).

I can’t tell you how many times we’ve gotten ready to go and I’ve cleaned up the french fry mess and I could tell it made the waitstaff uncomfortable, like we thought they weren’t doing their job. That’s not it at all. We just feel bad leaving that mess for you to clean up. Let us do it, it’s OK, really.

Really, this isn’t all that hard. Just be considerate and try to help by letting us do our thing. We’d love to sit and enjoy a quiet meal, too, but that just isn’t in the cards for us if our kids are ever to join us for a meal out there. Thank you in advance for understanding.

What tips do you have? Leave us a comment with your favorite tip for turning a difficult trip into a delight! Also, please like our page on Facebook and follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest!