When we were kids, most families followed a similar routine. In the mornings – you got up, ate breakfast and went to school. In the afternoon – you came home, did homework (well… most of the time), played with your friends, came home 15 minutes after the streetlights came on and sat down with the family for dinner.
Sure, the schedule varied slightly from time to time, but it was consistent enough. A family’s routine might not seem that notable, but this stability is really the glue to a family and by extension, society.
Perhaps because of the rigid structure most people followed during the 1960’s to the late 1980’s, it has been suggested that many high-functioning people with autism were able to “blend in” with the general public. Strict, structured schedules allowed people to know exactly how and where their hours would be allocated each and every day.
Now, our frenetic schedules pull us in a million directions. We have work, meetings, lessons, appointments, soccer games, errands, and the list goes on. We lost the structure and everyone -not just people with autism – needs it.
This is why it is so important to create a routine that places importance on spending time as a family. One great way to spend time as a family is by engaging in regular family dinners. They keep everyone connected and the lines of communication open. Plus, our kids get to practice dining conversation and manners – and so do we! It is a structured, social activity our three children with autism can practice and really excel in. There is a time limit and accepted topics that most everyone discusses – like everyone’s general health and the weather – that translate to dinners with friends, other family and acquaintances. Something they can learn, apply, and generalize.
We generally insist on 2-3 days per week, but if you haven’t done it in awhile, start slow. Here are five tips to get you on your way:
Tip #1 – Plan Ahead
Make a family announcement that you want to have dinner together at home on a certain night. Pre-inform your spouse/partner that this is coming so there will be a united front.
Tip #2 – Get Set Up
Find a large table that is usually located somewhere near the kitchen. If you’re like us it’s usually covered in lots of…well, at our house we call it crap, but at your house it may be different (not judging – just saying whatever it is, find it and clean it off). Maybe go out and buy some nice placemats for the occasion. I have different placemats for each season. I like to think it brightens the place, but also saves my table from sticky fingers and scratches.
Tip #3 – Decide on a Menu
Plan a meal that the majority of the family will like. Sorry, but in a war, you have to expect casualties. If 4 out of 5 people like spaghetti, at least you are guaranteed some family style dinner conversation. I know that in this day and age, it’s hard to find the time to have a meal together (let alone cook one), but if you can, do it. If you have to resort to takeout, serve the food on actual plates; don’t just dump a bunch of bags on the table. Trust me when I tell you that in a house with 3 kids on the spectrum, there are not a lot of common denominators. It is a process and sometimes that means I make dinner in stages so that everyone eats a portion of it. We’ve even gotten to the point where a few vegetables are eaten or in some cases swallowed whole like pills, but I’ll take what I can get.
Tip #4 – Switch Off the Tech
This is a big one. Cell phones off when the food hits the table. No, I don’t mean silent, vibrate or even super silent when it doesn’t even vibrate. I mean, OFF. Like off, off. As in, you’ll have to turn it back on when you’re done, off. Before you say it, if you’re a doctor on call or a personal caregiver that needs to reached, this obviously doesn’t apply to you. However, you can put your phone down on a nearby table and turn the ringer up if you’re worried you won’t hear it and focus on your family. We teach our kids what’s important by example. It’s nuts when you sit in a restaurant and there’s a table full of people where everyone has got their face buried in a cell phone, not talking to each other. Now, we let the kids use the iPhone sometimes when we are out – if the service is slow, or they need a distraction – but once the food comes, no phone. I don’t care if they have autism at that point. We did it in short increments. It took a long time to work our way up to it, but they have all managed to be able to do it now. Practicing at home is the first step.
Tip #5 – Keep it Simple
Simple meal, simple conversation. Give your kids the opportunity to succeed. Everyone talks about one cool thing that happened to them that day. It doesn’t matter if you were with them and know the story already. Listen like it is the first time you are hearing it and be enthralled. The point of the exercise is to listen and get your child to engage with you. We usually put on soft music. As the kids have gotten used to the routine, they help set it up, plan it, and execute it. They set the table and sometimes even get extravagant – like putting out flowers, or eating by candlelight. They also help clean up. It is something ordinary that we get to do together, that we get to make special and that counts.
Well, it’s time to go shopping, and Bon Appétit!