Eating out as an autistic person can be so difficult and require a lot of planning. Not only do you have to contend with sensory overload, but also the café/restaurant being busy.
When I first enter a café or restaurant I take in the sounds, smells, sights and people; I absorb the full sensory environment before even acknowledging where I am.
This itself can be very overwhelming.
Why can sensory sensitivities make eating out overwhelming?
How ever consuming the sensory overload of entering a café/restaurant is, I find one of the biggest issues to be menu options. Personally, I have a lot of sensory sensitivities around food which can make it hard for me to find something that is safe for me to eat.
In most instances, I must ask for something to be removed from a dish to make it safe and whilst most places have been happy to do that, some places are not accessible in this same way.
I spend a lot of time at museums for not only enjoyment, but for work. Museum cafes have predominantly pre-packaged food, so if I ask for something removing from a dish the answer is that everything is pre-prepared, and they can’t do that. This is a huge issue for me as it means that I am unable to eat anything on that menu.
The worst problem though, is when something is advertised without all the ingredients, so I think it is safe, but it turns out not to be.
If I see ‘Cheese and Pickle’ sandwiches advertised on the menu, then I expect a sandwich that only contains cheese and pickle, but this often comes with added tomato which isn’t listed.
If I order a ‘Sausage Roll’, I don’t expect to find added pieces of carrot or swede hidden inside.
If a soup is advertised as smooth, I don’t expect to find lumps in it.
All of these have happened to me recently. They might seem small, but to me it means that eating out makes me feel very anxious.
How can this be improved?
It doesn’t need to be this difficult. There are really simple things cafes/restaurants can do to make eating out a less stressful experience such as:
Make sure your full menu is available in advance, including all the ingredients. The listing of ingredients is now a legal requirement under Natasha’s Law.
If you pre-make sandwiches, either make some plain sandwiches up or leave some ingredients to one side to make up when requested.
Don’t challenge people that ask for ingredients to be removed.
Provide handheld menus so people can process what is being ordered.
Try offering all food options to everyone rather than separating out a children’s and adult’s menu. Sometimes ‘safe’ foods are only available on a children’s menu meaning they can’t be ordered by an adult.
Why is it important to make your menu choices more accessible?
Making these changes is so important because it means that you are making your café or restaurant more accessible for people to eat in.
It can often feel like I am being judged by the staff when I am eating out and I am not likely to return to those places. But if I have a positive experience then I will return over and over again, so you would be opening up your business for more people!
A final reason why it is important is that it isn’t just for sensory reasons that you should let people know about ingredients used, it is also vital for people with allergies that you provide that information.
At the moment, eating out remains a (mostly) stressful experience for me but I hope in the future this can be improved.