Sometimes I wonder if the idea of taking a group of students on the spectrum into a large sensory overloaded room also known as the cafeteria is some sort of joke being played on us. I don't think an autism friendly cafeteria exists out there. The closest you might find is a lunch room in a designated school for students with autism, but still, in my experience, these schools are located in older buildings/older schools and these lunch rooms were still never created for this intention.
Waiting, loud noises, crowded spaces, high ceilings, sounds of others eating, carrying a tray, making choices quickly and on demand. Understanding that we HAVE to take something that we know we don't like and won't eat. I mean the list goes on.
Last year my students ate both breakfast and their lunch in the classroom. When I started working at my new school in August and I realized this, I thought no way. That's not fair to them. Let's give them the opportunity to show us that they can learn the routines and handle 30 minutes in the cafeteria before we seclude them to the classroom. And even then, why make them all eat in the classroom if all but 1 or 2 can handle the cafeteria?
So I made sure we were prepared to tackle this adventure. Thankfully our cafeteria is smaller than most I have been in, but it still has the super high ceilings and any of the sensory concerns you could possibly think of. Our trips to the cafeteria involve 2 things.
1. Get there early
2. Bring the cafeteria bin!
We get to the cafeteria as soon as we can to be closest to the front of the line for breakfast, and at lunch we always walk down a couple minutes early. I'd rather stand for 2 minutes with my students waiting for them to start serving, versus waiting behind a line of 20+ kindergartners. And we're first lunch which is also another bonus.
My students have really caught the hang of going through the lunch line. 2 require the most support, but they are also the youngest. Some finger fidgets to hold while they wait and some assistance with their trays from an adult and they make it through. All of the students love scanning their lunch tags at the end! :) I also created this super helpful visual to use to get us through the line.
Our last and final life saver for the cafeteria is this yellow bucket. I take it to the cafeteria every morning before the students come in and we take it with us every afternoon for lunch.
The best thing in this bucket are the small toys/fidgets we bring with us for when students are done eating. All of our kids eat at different rates and then some are stuck waiting for a loooong time until lunch is over so we make sure this bucket is stocked with highly preferred items to keep them occupied at their seats until it is time to leave. Playdoh and silly putty are super popular choices. Finger fidgets like tangle toys and squishy tentacle fingers are also interesting to a few. Then we might toss in a few matchbox cars, or a random Buzz Light Year if someone was interested in him prior to leaving for the cafeteria.
We also keep extra utensil packs from breakfast (they don't get straws at lunch, but these have straws!), germ-x, and baby wipes-- never know what you might need. I also keep copies of the lunch menu for students whose parents have circled their choices for us and any behavioral support visual we could need.
How do you survive the cafeteria? What does lunch look like for your students? I've included some links below for suggested items if you want to create your own cafeteria bin. **The amazon links are affiliate links**