Sitting in the cafeteria at the lunch table is a classic school experience - and the time your child may feel most isolated and alone. For kids who struggle with social skills, like those with Asperger’s, autism and ADHD, lunch period can be one of the worst in the day. But, if your child can manage to make a few changes, lunchtime can be a time for fun and friendship. This is a perfect area where parents can coach their child to social success.
Timing is Everything:
Kids on the autism spectrum or ADHD can be struggling with the executive functioning aspects of getting to lunch - things like packing up the backpack and finding the lunch box, or navigating the hallways to get to the lunch room. Or, they may race from the classroom without talking to anyone. This might mean that your child is the first to arrive in an empty lunchroom, or the last one to walk in, when all the seats are full.
The goal is to get to the lunch room somewhere in the middle of the crowd. If your child is the first into the room, he’s faced with empty tables, where he has to sit down alone, and then somehow draw others to him. Kids who have close friends have enough “social power” to pull others to their table. But, it would be unusual for other kids to sit down with kids who are struggling socially. There’s nothing worse than sitting all alone.
It can be tempting for your child to dawdle on the way to the lunch room. The problem is that when the dawdler arrives, the tables might be packed. Your child may have no place to sit down, or be forced to sit with younger kids, older kids, or, even worse, mean kids. Better to get there a few minutes earlier, and have a bit of control over the table mates.
Lunch Lines Provide Social Structure:
The chaotic, unstructured quality of the lunchroom is one of its toughest aspects. Waiting in the cafeteria line is a bit easier. Just a few kids are standing near your child, and they are pretty much stuck there. This is your child’s chance to strike up a conversation. The topic is easy - what’s for lunch, what happened in class, what’s coming up that afternoon.
Fit In With Food:
Pay attention to what the other kids are eating. Usually, there are two separate lines, for kids who buy and kids who bring, maybe a separate line to buy drinks. Figure out if your child is the only one buying or bringing. This sets him or her apart from the other kids and makes it tougher to stick with the crowd. Even for kids bringing a special diet, it may be worthwhile for them to stand in line with the others to pick up fruit or a beverage.
Looking for a Table:
Once your child is ready to sit down, it’s time to scan for friends, acquaintances, or classmates. The goal here is to find the kids your child knows best and see if they’re open to table mates. Explain the social rankings of schools to your child. It’s never a good idea for socially struggling kids to try to sit at the popular table. Even if they’re not rejected, they’ve committed a social error and are open to all sorts of later problems.
You should coach your child on the basics of looking busy, not standing desperate and alone. Brainstorm ideas like checking out the salad bar, putting on a jacket, filling a water bottle. These little activities give your child a chance to scan the room while looking busy, and to wait for a more social spot to open up.
An Escape Plan
For some kids, lunchtime is torture and no amount of planning and scheming improve things. It’s perfectly reasonable for parents to request a different plan rather than have a child suffer for an hour every day. The office, a teacher’s room, or the library can all offer a safe refuge. It’s important to keep trying, and socializing is learned through repeated efforts. At the same time, if things aren’t going well, maybe your child just needs a break from the effort for a few weeks.
Patricia Robinson MFT
I'm a licensed therapist in Danville, California and a coach for Asperger's and ADHD nationwide. I work with individuals of all ages who have special needs, like Autism Spectrum Disorders, ADD, ADHD, and the family members and partners of special needs individuals.