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Autism Eats

It has been said that “food is love” and I have always loved to eat. Some of my favorite memories are with family and friends gathered around our kitchen table. Second only to a home-cooked meal was going out to dinner at a restaurant.

Whether at home or at a restaurant, sitting down together for a meal was always the best part of the day. It was a time when work was done, school was over, sports practices and games were finished. It was a time to eat, laugh, argue a little, and recount the day’s activities.

My wife, Delphine, and I have two exceptional children. Ava is a fourteen-year-old middle school student and Adin is a sixth grader who has autism.

Adin does not always share our love of going out to eat! Like many individuals with autism, Adin is often overwhelmed by the restaurant experience: the bright, fluorescent lights, loud music, waiting to be seated, waiting for a menu (what happens if they do not serve pizza?!), waiting for the food to be served, and the list goes on.

On a typical restaurant outing, Adin might yell, flop on the ground, run for the door, or want to play videos on his iPad at concert-level volume.  We often disturb other diners and restaurant staff rarely know how to serve our table.  More often than not, tensions are high and we are left with few options but to leave early. Any enjoyment that could be derived from the restaurant experience is quickly outweighed by stress and anxiety.

I remember one night in particular when our wait was very long at a popular pizza restaurant. Adin’s favorite food is pizza and he could not understand why the tables around us were eating and we were not. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Delphine’s face turn pale and then I saw Adin sprinting through the restaurant grabbing pizza off of the plates of other restaurant patrons. By the time I caught him, he had grabbed slices from three different tables!

After that incident, the frequency of our outings decreased. We missed being part of the community and socializing with family and friends in the “regular” way we always expected.

Delphine and I knew we were not the only autism family that missed these simple outings. We also knew very clearly what did not work in a typical restaurant experience. This was the birth of Autism Eats®. Our mission is to create an autism-friendly, non-judgmental family environment for restaurant outings that ensures success for all attending.

We reserve sections or private dining rooms of restaurants (our non-judgmental zone), advance payment is made on the Autism Eats website (no waiting for the check), food is served buffet-style with child and adult favorites (no waiting to order or for your food to arrive), patrons sit at family and community tables (spend alone time or make new friends), all kids receive a sensory-friendly toy (who doesn’t love a new toy?) and lights and music are adjusted down for those with sensory sensitivity.

There is no need to explain any behaviors, apologize, or feel embarrassed about anything.  All behaviors are welcomed, including flopping on the ground, yelling, spilling food, playing videos at full volume, and running around the restaurant.

It is an opportunity to enjoy a much-needed night out in a supportive environment with others who share similar joys and challenges.  I have listened as parents scheduled play dates for their kids who just met that evening, talk about sports, school, business, and new autism treatments. Siblings realize that they are not the only ones with a quirky brother or sister. All the while kids, both typically developing and with autism, enjoy, laugh, and play. There is a collective sigh of relief in the air.

Since our inception in 2014, we have held over 40 brunches and dinners in 15 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii. Several new Autism Eats clubs are holding their first events in the next 90 days.  We have been honored with numerous awards including commendations from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, State of Hawaii, State of California and the Autism Support Center of the Northeast Arc. The most gratifying awards we receive are the smiles on our guests’ faces and the emails that they send to us.

We are rapidly scaling Autism Eats to bring the program to more communities and increase the frequency of our events. There is demand and I have had discussions with autism parents and organizations in almost all 50 states and other countries. If you are interested in learning more about Autism Eats and possibly getting involved by starting a club in your community, providing a donation, funding or partnership, please visit the Autism Eats website or email us at Autism Eats.

Lenard Zohn
Co-Founder, Autism Eats

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the NLM Family Foundation.

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