One of the hardest things for parents of a child with autism to do is go out to a restaurant as a family. Between possible anxiety over a new place, sensory issues with the environment, pickiness over the food, and the potential for a crushing meltdown present at any moment, many parents decide to just stay home. Some restaurants, such as Mary’s Pizza Shack in California, are helping by providing sensory kits to diners and looking for other ways to become “autism friendly,” but they’re not the norm. Enter Autism Eats.
Autism Eats is basically an autism-friendly supper club, started in 2014 by Leonard and Delphine Zohn. The Zohns had given up on going out to dinner as a family because their then-8-year-old son Adin was too unpredictable in restaurants. But they missed the “social aspect of dining out,” and started Autism Eats to have the best of both worlds: dine out with their family and dine out without stress.
“We knew exactly what didn’t work, so we felt if we could reverse that, we could bring a community together and allow everyone to be successful when they wanted to go out,” Leonard told the Boston Globe. “Many families feel it is not worth the effort, and they stop venturing out. It can be isolating and lonely.”
It sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Because the Zohns have firsthand experience on the issues associated with dining out with a child with autism, they know what to look for. They pick restaurants that can accommodate a large group, with management that’s flexible and understanding, and a setup that’s autism friendly. A variety of food is either served buffet-style or family-style, so that no child (or adult) has to wait to eat, and payment (including the tip) is taken in advance, so that nobody has to wait for the check when it’s time to leave. Additionally, potential sensory issues are addressed, with dim lights and quiet or no background music.
Families are able to eat in peace, in a nonjudgmental space. Parents may choose to interact with other parents and so may the children; but if they don’t, that’s OK too.
“I have been corresponding to [sic] hundreds of people across the country,” Leonard told The Morning Call. “The plan is to have Autism Eats clubs in every state that wants one and to offer dinners on a more regular basis.” According to the Tampa Bay Times, Autism Eats is currently in five states, with plans for 26 by the end of the year. Additionally, the group is applying for nonprofit status.
Upcoming meals include:
- 9/24 – lunch at Filet of Soul Restaurant in Downington, PA
- 9/27 – dinner at the Post Office Pub in North Grafton, MA
- 9/27 – dinner at BJ’s Restaurant in Victorville, CA
- 10/18 – dinner at Andolini’s Restaurant in Andover, MA
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