We all want to teach our children to participate in family meals the way that we do. With children on the spectrum however, we need to be flexible in the beginning, and break meal time down into manageable steps. Later, we can adjust and fine tune our expectations as they gain experience and maturity. We may need to change our own perception of what meal time is in the beginning, and perhaps accept that meal time may not be the actual time that your child receives most of their nourishment for a while.
For example, meal time may look more like this for a while:
You announce to your child that it is time for Breakfast, Lunch, Snack, or Dinner.
You entice your child to the table with a preferred activity.
You might Introduce a 'set the table' procedure. (Using a song is a good method - see the Set the Table video to the right, or narrating your actions, or hand over hand guidance, etc.)
You set your visual timer or begin your manual countdown procedure for an appropriate amount of time depending on your child. (30 seconds, 3 minutes, 5 minutes)
You inform your child how long they are expected to remain at the table.
You allow your child to engage in the preferred activity you've arranged as you simultaneously introduce a preferred food item and/or beverage. (If your child uses icons, you might ask them to choose their food items. Or you might model icon use.)
You use a visual countdown such as the pocket countdown to make the transition easier.
When meal time is over, you announce that the meal is over.
You might introduce a 'clear the table' procedure. (Using the clean up song, narrating your actions, hand over hand guidance, etc.)
In order to ensure that the meal will end as scheduled, you follow it with another preferred activity. You might use a first/then board to indicate what is coming next, e.g. "First" Breakfast, "Then" Teletubbies.
It's a good idea to stick to a schedule and keep our expectations clear in the beginning. Later on, you can introduce more flexibility into your mealtime routine.
You repeat this process for every meal, lengthening the meal time, adding complexity and expectations as your child advances. Once your child is familiar with the process, you might change the environment. You follow the procedure at Grandma's house, or tote your place mat, timer and countdown to a restaurant.
Mealtime is a wonderful opportunity for learning. It is also a great time to work on joint attention with your child. You can add interesting place mats, toys, music, books, etc. to turn the meal time experience into a fun and interesting one.
Some visual aids that you might find helpful:
Melissa & Doug Placemats
Dry Erase Crayons