By Michael Rock
For most families, eating out at a restaurant is a relatively simple and enjoyable pastime. However, when family members have autism, a trip to the restaurant can be a much more challenging ordeal. Whether it’s specialized dietary needs, sensory overload, or the fear of being judged by other diners, numerous things can come into play that can make dining out more difficult than usual.
There are a number of things parents of children with autism can do to prepare for a trip to a restaurant. Parents can research the restaurant beforehand to get a sense of how suitable it is in terms of layout, sensory risk factors, such as crowds and noises, and menu options. If possible, parents should make reservations to avoid unexpected wait times. They should also give the manager a heads up that they will be bringing a child with autism, as most will be able to accommodate them. Parents can also talk to their children with autism so they know what to expect. During the excursion, they may provide some of their children’s favorite toys to entertain them during the meal as well as snacks as an “appetizer” if necessary. Having a sense of humor can be helpful too.
It may also be wise for parents to take their children with autism to a restaurant that’s not too far from their home and with no more than two to four family members all together. Parents should also take their children at less busy times to reduce the risk of sensory overload and go for brief walks if they are becoming overwhelmed.
In addition, Autism Village is a free app that provides information on the most suitable businesses, services, and organizations in a given community.
For children with autism who have greater challenges at restaurants, Lenard and Delphine Zohn of Andover, Massachusetts, founded Autism Eats in in 2015. The program partners with interested restaurants, who host autism-friendly dinner parties. These events are held in private rooms of the restaurant, and food is served family or buffet style to reduce the stress of waiting. Lights and music are also adjusted to address sensory difficulties. Autism Eats thus far has been very successful and has expanded to other cities, such as Chicago.
In 2013, students and faculty at the University of Wisconsin in Madison organized a “Sensory Friendly Family Night” at the nearby Culver’s restaurant. During this program, bright lights and loud sounds were lowered to prevent sensory overload. They also educated local diners and restaurant staff about the challenges people with autism may experience to better ensure they were sensitive to the needs of this particular demographic.
Similarly, Kinesha Roach of Omaha, Nebraska established Our Gathering Place in 2018. Unlike Autism Eats, Our Gathering Place operates as an open air community dinner, though Roach hopes to center it in a formal building that also provides resources in the future.
In Sonoma County, California, local chain Mary’s Pizza Shack has begun providing “sensory friendly kits” at select locations for all guests who request them since 2016. They contain various sensory-friendly toys, weighted blankets, earmuffs for noise reduction, a chart to help children with autism to indicate their emotional condition, as well as some “social stories.”
Though dining out when you have a child with autism can be difficult for you, your child, and the rest of your family. There is plenty that can be done to reduce or eliminate the risk of such relevant challenges.
Michael Rock is a New York City-based reporter and self-advocate with autism. A graduate of Brandeis University, his work has appeared in Kings County Politics, Chelsea Now, Our Town, Queens County Politics, and WhoWhatWhy.