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Individualised placemats are a very simple idea that can help add a little bit of motivation to sitting at the table as well as some visual structure and predictability.   I usually just make them by searching Google Images for 'desktop wallpapers' (big pictures designed to be the background for your computer) themed in the child's favourite character, e.g. 'Thomas desktop wallpaper'.   Then I copy them into Publisher (or Word) to get them the right size, print them out and laminate them.

You can make then just for the child(ren), or for the entire family.   You can regularly make new ones as the child's interests change and develop, or you can make them with outlines of place settings to help promote learning to set the table.

Its worth noting that, although I usually promote sitting down at a dining table as a whole family for a meal (it gives very clear signals), sometimes the child may struggle with this.   If they have difficulty coping with multiple stimuli and their brain is often overloaded in busy environments, sitting and eating on their own away from others may be best to start with.

If you think about it, they're already working hard to coordinate and sequence (executive skills) the motor tasks involved in eating (hold spoon, spoon to mouth, chew then swallow etc.), along with processing the multiple sensory stimuli from the food itself (texture, taste, smell, look - sometimes more than one of these).   To add the sights, sounds and smells of a whole family eating their dinner and discussing the day might just be that little bit too much.   It's probably best to have the TV and radio off as well.

Saying that, as a child gets older they may reach a point where they can cope with joining the family for a meal provided the dining environment is as low arousal as possible.   Eventually, they may be able to cope with eating out at pubs or restaurants, provided you've given them the time to develop the skills involved in their own time.

As with other supports, attention to colour schemes and fonts when making placemats can make all the difference.

Below are a couple of individualised placemats, followed by a set for a whole family.   As you can see, you can have a lot of fun with these!
Placemats 1
Placemats 2

Another mealtime issue I've been presented with is the child bolting their food before everyone else has even finished serving up and sitting down (why do we always serve the children first?) and then wanting to leave the table or eat what is on everyone else's plate.

In this situation I have had success with a 'grace'.   You establish mealtime rules and put them up on the wall where they can be seen by the child from where they sit to eat.   They can be themed if required.   They may go something like:

  1. Sit at the table with your hands on your lap until all the food is served up (you're telling the child what to do rather than what not to do, this is always best as saying 'don't do this' rather leaves their options open as to what to do instead.   Also, you're taking into account that little hands often have a mind of their own!).
  2. Everybody say grace together (this can be a traditional grace or any poem or song verse or whatever you like.   It probably needs to be about four lines long and have a flow and a rhyme to it.   You may wish to make your own up - "thank you Mummy for cooking this food, thank you Daddy for not being rude" etc. to add a little humour or familiarity).
  3. Everybody start eating.

The 'grace' provides a concrete reference that the child understands has to happen before eating can commence.   You may wish to add the words to your grace to the poster with your mealtime rules on it.   Its important that the grace remains the same to reinforce it's permanence and provide predictability.

You may wish to add further rules to encompass waiting at the table for pudding etc., however if you don't think your child can manage this yet then don't put it in.   Whatever your rules say need to be achievable, otherwise the whole thing won't work.   If one rule can be regularly ignored, so can the rest!   So start small and work up, maybe using birthdays as a marker to add a new step ("now you're a big six, you can wait at the table for your pudding, gosh you are getting grown up!").

Compliance with the mealtime rules can be reinforced with a reward chart, again for just the child with autism or for other family members as well.