Too loud, too bright, too tasty! Dining out with sensory processing disorder

For individuals with sensory processing disorder, dining out can be a challenge. We asked writer Kerry Mead to share her experience.

What do you love most about eating out? The chance to eat amazing food? Try new dishes? The hustle and bustle of your favourite local restaurant? Now, imagine feeling overwhelmed or irritated by new flavours and tastes, background noise and bright lights. Imagine the dial on your senses being turned up to 11 and jammed there, every time you go out to eat.

That is what many people with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) go through every time they dine out. Eating out is one of life’s little pleasures that most of us take for granted, whether it’s a birthday celebration, a family Sunday lunch, or catching up with a group of friends. But many people with SPD and their parents or carers are often denied the simple pleasure of sharing these occasions because of the anxiety it causes. In fact, the symptoms and reactions caused by sensory processing problems are often the ones that cause the biggest barriers for sufferers to get out and enjoy their communities, especially children.

But what exactly is SPD? Why can sensory overload make eating out so difficult? And what can restaurants do to ensure eating out with family and friends is accessible for all?

What is sensory processing disorder?

SPD is a difficulty with organising and responding to information that comes in through the senses. People can be oversensitive to external stimuli, undersensitive, or both. SPD is not currently recognised as a stand-alone medical condition; it is most commonly diagnosed alongside neurodiverse conditions like autism and ADHD. Around 1 in 20 of the UK population are diagnosed with sensory processing disorder alongside another condition, but seeing as 1 in 7 people in the UK are classed as being neurodiverse, and many of them report sensory processing problems, it is likely to be an issue for many more than the official statistics tell us.

Why is eating out so hard for people with SPD?

Here are some of the things that can be difficult for people with sensory processing problems to handle when eating out:

  • Being scared by sudden noises (like a coffee grinder or the diners on the next table suddenly breaking into a rousing rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’).
  • Strong smells and tastes
  • New textures and types of food
  • Background noise and loud music
  • Bright or flashing lights
  • Crowded places

It’s often easy to spot a child struggling in public with sensory overload, but adults can and do suffer as well. When I asked Wes, a keen chef and foodie with ADHD, why he rarely eats out he simply said: “Too much noise and rowdy people. [It] literally puts me off my food”.

When children are struggling with sensory overstimulation they may look to other diners like they are misbehaving, and their parents can’t manage their poor behaviour. Sensory dysregulation can cause children to become loud, boisterous and unable to sit still, or to ‘melt down’, cry and tantrum, refuse to eat, hide or try to run away.

My 12 year old son Sam is autistic with sensory processing problems, and eating out as a family has been all but impossible for us for most of his childhood. Before I had kids I always assumed I would be that parent whose child would sit happily colouring at any restaurant table, wolfing down the special of the day. But, like much in life, the fantasy has ended up being very different to the reality.

When Sam was four we met my family at Nando’s. At the sight of his bowl of fries arriving he bolted under the table and then into the men’s toilets and refused to come out, unless Mummy came in and got him (no, Grandad wouldn’t do). When he was ten I tried taking him to a local cafe on a quiet day for a milkshake; he strode in and loudly exclaimed “it STINKS in here”, which left me with no choice but to bow out gracefully before we even had a chance to sit down.

After a number of years of persevering, leaving numerous gatherings and get-togethers with a screaming child under my arm, under the weight of sympathetic looks from strangers, or more often judgmental stares and whispers, we just gave up on eating out.

Now he is older he can explain his problems around eating out with more clarity. He has superhuman levels of smell and taste; strong or unfamiliar smells can be unbearable to him. He loves burgers, but gets nervous about eating burgers in cafes and restaurants; what if the patty tastes different? What if the bun is a different texture or has sesame seeds? He will tolerate eating out these days, but only somewhere he is familiar with, when it is quiet, where the food is as plain as possible and there is an easy exit in sight. I have learnt to accept that sometimes we will just have to leave halfway through our meal, if we make it out at all.

What can restaurants do to help?

Deniece Dixon’s son Jaheem is 10 and has a diagnosis of autism. When he was diagnosed Deniece and her partner gave up their careers in order to dedicate more time to caring for him, and opened Cafe Conscious, a Bristol cafe specialising in Jamaican vegan cuisine. They also wanted to create a space where children like Jaheem and their families could relax, socialise and eat without judgment or worry: “The biggest problem is my boy won’t sit still, he has to run up and down. Then music, he has to cover his ears, but the biggest problem is people judging and staring. Cafe Conscious is a place where he can be himself. You need somewhere where you are going to feel okay”.

More restaurants are beginning to recognise the needs of families and individuals with sensory processing issues. Mark Reid runs San Rocco, an Italian restaurant in Ashton. He has received awards and made the local and national news for his efforts to make dining in his restaurant accessible for all; and his regular customers with SPD just keep coming back.

It all started with one particular family who came to the restaurant often, whose son was disabled. Mark tells me: “I noticed they were using PECS to help their child choose what he wanted, so I came to the idea of doing a pictorial menu he could just point to.”

“All of our full time staff have been trained to help, I have been to local specialist schools and got advice. We do ask when people come in with an autistic child or someone comes in with a specific disability, to just let us know. Because if we know we can ask what specific part of the restaurant they would like to sit in, whether they want us to turn down the background music. We want to accommodate people and make sure they are happy. We try our best to accommodate everyone, because restaurants are about going out as a family regardless of what illness or disability someone has got”.

“No-one should be thought of as any different because they have a child, or they are an adult with a disability; it shouldn’t be like that. Here they get the same appreciation as everybody else”.

The Gate in Islington, London, is another restaurant which has received accolades for it’s work to make dining out accessible to all; in 2016 it was the first restaurant to receive the National Autistic Society’s Autism Friendly Award. All it’s staff are trained to work with neurodiverse customers and to make their families feel welcome, and they offer a quiet ‘chill zone’ area for diners if they get overwhelmed.

What can other diners do to help?

I still remember the familiar sick-in-the-pit-of-my-stomach feeling walking past tables of tutting, staring customers carrying my screaming child out of yet another restaurant. But I also remember the time a stranger in a cafe pulled a lollipop out of his pocket and wordlessly handed it to my son, buying me enough time to gather my bags and pay the bill before having to leave.

Like with so many other things in life, the golden rules are tolerance, kindness and awareness. So, if you see a family struggling with a distressed or overstimulated child, be the guy with the lollipop, and bear in mind that that family has the same right as everyone else to experience the simple pleasure of eating out.

Find out more:
You can learn more about sensory processing disorder here.
Advice for eating out with children with sensory processing disorder.

Kerry Mead is a freelance writer and music editor living in Bristol, UK. She writes about parenting and neurodiversity for a local autism charity, and is food obsessed. She can definitely beat you at making tacos.