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McDonald’s: why the parents of autistic kids are lovin’ it

Ignore the food snobs - for some of us the Golden Arches are a godsend.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

Topics Politics

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‘Elitists have always looked down at fast food, criticising how it tastes and regarding it as another tacky manifestation of American popular culture.’ Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation, Penguin 2002 (1).

McDonald’s is the fast-food chain that Guardian readers love to hate, but for many parents of autistic children there are few more welcome signs than the double arches.

We were recently sitting with our son James at McDonald’s in Leighton Buzzard near where he goes to school, when we spotted another family also struggling with an autistic daughter. When James suddenly decided he wanted to go to the toilet, he started pulling down his trousers well before he reached the door. As I chased after him, I passed the mother of the autistic girl and we exchanged a smile of mutual recognition.

‘Isn’t McDonald’s great’, she said. ‘It’s so reassuring to know that however badly your child behaves, it probably won’t be the worst that the staff have seen that day.’

It’s true that the staff are one of the best things about McDonald’s. Critics like Eric Schlosser, whose latest diatribe against McDonald’s – Chew On This – is published this month, complains that the company exploits teenagers (2). I am sure that their wages are not extravagant, though I doubt whether pay and conditions are any worse than those of comparable British firms.

I cannot judge the quality of staff training, but I find that they are always cheerful and welcoming and tolerant of James’ unpredictable behaviour. On one occasion when he started jumping up and down and squealing – as he does when he is excited – the manager rushed around from behind the counter. When he appeared he was carrying a party hat and a balloon.

The food at McDonald’s is fast – a very attractive feature for children who have a limited tolerance for waiting, and even more attractive for their parents who have to contain their children’s impatience. Small things make a big difference. For example, because the French fries are only 8mm thick (a feature of McDonald’s much-derided industrialised production techniques), they lose heat quickly, thus enabling a child who has no concept of allowing food to cool before attempting to eat it to avoid burning his mouth.

James likes Chicken McNuggets (apparently made from chicken breasts!), French fries and Coke. I share his lack of enthusiasm for McDonald’s burgers, which, as a fan of American cuisine, I always find a big disappointment. I find the coffee excellent, much better than those bitter-tasting free-trade varieties in trendier chains. But I’m not much impressed by the recent attempts by McDonald’s to present itself as something it isn’t: a health-food outfit. If I wanted carrot sticks, I would buy a carrot.

Like many health zealots, Schlosser wants a ban on advertising to children of foods high in fat and sugar. This will make no difference to James who is oblivious to advertising, and also to McDonald’s promotional toys (he wouldn’t even wear his Ronald McDonald party hat). However, it could be a problem for promoters of breastfeeding who also, through advertising and other means, encourage mothers to provide their babies with a substance that is rich in fat and carbohydrates, vital nutrients for growing children. The high fat/high carbohydrate food available at McDonald’s is often particularly valuable for children with autism who are notoriously fastidious eaters.

For parents of children with problems of continence, one of the most important features of any public facility is the toilets – and those at McDonald’s are excellent. They are well designed, with easy access, plenty of space and they are kept scrupulously clean.

Perhaps some would prefer a good old greasy spoon British caff, with filthy toilets, filthy kitchens, surly staff and grumpy customers. Others might opt for the trendy whole food restaurant, with even dirtier toilets and kitchens, even more miserable and ill-looking staff and a food snob at every table.

Not for me and my family – give us McDonald’s any day.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick is a GP and author of MMR and Autism: What Parents Need to Know (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

(1) Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation, Penguin 2002, p9

(2) Eric Schlosser, Chew on This, Puffin 2006.

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Topics Politics

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