Dining Out with an Autistic Child

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The thing about parenting an autistic child is that it's easy to forget how unique your universe is. At home, the endless rules and rituals dictated by my 13-year-old son Nate's disability feel natural. Not easy, but natural.

But when our family goes out for dinner, all hell can, and often does, break loose. Though Nate has made enormous strides since he started attending The Boston Higashi School, eating out is a break in routine, and if something unexpected happens, the experience can be pretty unappetizing. This past April, I took Nate and my son Joey, 8, to a local kid-friendly place. I ordered Nate's burger (he always wants the same thing when we eat out) as soon as we sat down—and then came the inevitable curveball. The burger arrived almost raw. I sent it back to be cooked more, but all Nate processed was that one second his burger was there and the next someone had taken it away. He jumped up angrily from his chair, followed the waiter into the kitchen and grabbed his plate back. At other restaurants, Nate has licked buffet utensils and thrown tantrums when the wait for a table is too long.

It was with families like mine in mind that Alexandra Abend set out to organize Autism Family Night in restaurants. Alex, 16, has an 8-year-old autistic brother. "We were at some little restaurant," she recalls, "when my brother started completely freaking out, pulling his hair, trying to bang his head on the table, pulling my dad's hair, biting...I overheard this man behind us say, 'Why can't they be better parents?'"

While attending Take The Lead, a leadership program for female teens at Mount Holyoke College, Alex was asked to create a program based on something she felt strongly about. "I asked my mom what she would want, and she said, 'Maybe a restaurant, an amusement park, a trip where people aren't going to be looking at us thinking, 'Why can't you control your child?'"

Alex approached T.G.I. Friday's, which has a family-friendly reputation, with her proposal, and hoped that perhaps a few restaurants in her native New Jersey would consider it. When 35 T.G.I. Friday's signed on, Alex was floored. Says Bill Brayer, a vice president of operations for T.G.I. Friday's, "When Alex first contacted me I thought it was a great idea and unique for a 16-year-old girl to put something like this together. Our Long Island area restaurants have supported autism in the past pretty heavily so this was a great opportunity to extend what we've already done and to support someone like Alex."

Alex e-mailed the restaurant managers so they could prepare the staff for what to expect. "I came up with a list that said what autism is, what might happen and how to handle it. You can't keep the noise down in a restaurant but maybe not play the music so loud, be patient and if a child is having an episode get the parents the check as quick as possible."

The night of the event on April 17, Alex and her family attended a T.G.I. Friday's near her hometown of Warren. Some of the restaurants reported higher than usual attendance for a Tuesday night. One mother of a 17-year-old autistic boy came up to thank Alex and then burst into tears telling her how wonderful it was to be able to go out to a restaurant with her son and not have people make comments. She told Alex she would never forget that evening.

After the event Alex received even more e-mails thanking her. But what she remembers most from that night is this: "My brother was facing the entire restaurant, he flipped out, he had one of his episodes. My dad had to carry him out and calm him down. It was kind of like what happened the other time, except no one was really looking at him and saying, 'What's wrong with your child? Why is he acting like that?' Instead, people asked, 'Are you okay? Do you need anything?'"

That kind of empathy is the reason families like mine would embrace more Autism Family Nights at restaurants, or even a permanent program—regardless of which restaurant sponsored it. But at the moment there aren't any future plans in the works, and Alex, who has college to think about, can't be expected to make it happen all on her own. Launching a program like this takes time and dedication, and unfortunately, for those of us with autistic children, time and dedication are already monopolized. But here's hoping that T.G.I. Friday's—or someone—sees an opportunity, where most just see a screaming child.