Autism Back at School: The Case of the Dreaded Cafeteria
Updated: Sep 3, 2019
The start of the new school year often unleashes a flood of emotions in children. Sure, there are a number of things to look forward but many students also have at least some apprehensions:
“What will my new teacher be like?”
“Will the work be much harder this year?”
“Will my friends be in my class?”
"Having lunch in the cafeteria" is not usually on the list of things that children worry about before returning to school. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Lunch is a time that many children look forward to as an opportunity to relax and socialize.
The autistic student, however, may have a very different view of the cafeteria. For some of these students, time spent in a school cafeteria is not only uncomfortable but downright dreadful.
Why is this?
Anxiety Factors in the Cafeteria
In an earlier article, I detailed 5 factors that can heighten anxiety for children on the autism spectrum. Briefly, these are: Cognitive Rigidity (making change and transition difficult), Sensory Sensitivities, Social Challenges, Communication Barriers, and Task Frustration. The cafeteria happens to be one of those places where all 5 factors come together in perfect storm fashion.
Let’s explore each:
Cognitive Rigidity: The cafeteria is a very unpredictable place: Menus and procedures often change without notice and people seem to come and go without rhyme or reason. The lunch period is also a time of multiple transitions. Students have to get to the cafeteria, get on line for food, return to their table, eat, cleanup, and then leave within what is usually a very short period of time. The unpredictable nature of the lunch period along with the frequent transitions required during that time often result in high anxiety for the autistic student.
Sensory Sensitivities: For a kid with sensory sensitivities the cafeteria can be overwhelming. Strong smells, disgusting tastes, harsh lighting, loud noise, crowds…..the cafeteria has it all. There is often just too much going in a cafeteria from a sensory standpoint to cope with.
Social Challenges: The social landscape at the lunch table can be very difficult to figure out and navigate. There are many unwritten and complex social rules governing lunch time interactions such as where you sit, who you talk to, when you talk and what you talk about. Kids on the spectrum may not pick up on or decode these unwritten rules. This can create strain with peers that is both confusing and frustrating for the autistic student.
Communication Barriers: Related to social challenges are the high demands on language processing that often occur during lunch. Kids are often talking rapidly and jumping from topic to topic. A child with language processing challenges may find it hard to keep up. Lunch time conversations are also often laced with abstract figurative language and hyperbole that can be confusing for the student who prefers a more literal use of language.
Task Frustration: Both fine and gross motor skills are called upon during lunch. Balancing a tray, using utensils, and opening up bottles and milk cartons are just a few of the tasks that must be accomplished during lunch. Children who struggle with one or more of these tasks may feel awkward or even be unfairly singled out because of their struggles.
Strategies, Supports, and Accommodations
There are several strategies that can help make the cafeteria a more tolerable place for the autistic student. Some of these are:
Allow the student to enter and leave the cafeteria earlier. This will help the child to avoid getting jostled by crowds and can also reduce time spent waiting on line (which can be a source of great anxiety for some autistic students).
Be aware of sensory sensitivities and accommodate for them (for example seating away from the garbage cans, allowing headphones, better use of natural lighting etc.)
Support social interaction. Role-model and practice lunch time interactions in social skills groups or during other therapies. Use real-life examples from the child’s actual lunch period to help skills generalize.
Be aware of and immediately addressing bullying (including bullying by exclusion). Less structure and less supervision is a recipe for bullying. While children need some freedom to grow, it is imperative that there is enough supervision and awareness to keep a pulse on what is happening amongst students at lunch.
Support language needs. For the less verbal child ensure that assistive devices or other forms of communication are designed to meet lunch time language requirements. For the more verbal child, practice conversational skills that address how to understand and respond to rapid and nonfigurative language.
Incorporate lunch time motor skills into functional goals and occupational therapy plans.
When to use alternative settings
There may be times where a child finds the cafeteria to be overwhelming despite best practices for support. Using an alternative setting for the lunch period may be a necessary option in these cases. Of course, any decision that removes a child from mainstream peers should not be taken lightly and must be regularly reviewed. However, it is important to not lose sight of the purpose of lunch: to get fuel through food and to give the brain some time to recoup from the rigors of academics. If this can be accomplished in an alternative setting in a way that is satisfying to the child then this would be preferable to a situation that only serves to put the child under more distress.
A number of children on the autism spectrum find having lunch in the school cafeteria to be uncomfortable or even downright dreadful.
A number of factors combine to make the cafeteria anxiety provoking including sensory factors, unpredictability, social challenges, communication differences, and demands on motor skills.
There a number of strategies that can help to make the cafeteria less anxiety provoking and more tolerable for the autistic student.