For Those With Autism, A Chance To Dine Out Without Stress Or Stares
CHICAGO — The scene at Fireside restaurant in Ravenswood is pleasant and peaceful, with children playing, conversation humming and the smell of bacon rising from the buffet table. But make no mistake, this is no ordinary weekend brunch. A 12-year-old boy communicates his desire for more bacon with grunts. A 5-year-old tries to eat a green crayon and squeals indignantly when he is thwarted.
A tall, well-dressed teenager walks up behind his grandmother while she is talking and very gently presses his nose against the back of her right arm.
He breathes in deeply several times, strokes her arm tenderly, and then wordlessly moves on to her other arm, where he does the same thing again.
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“Grandma love,” his grandmother says, beaming.
At Chicago’s second Autism Eats event, many of the young guests are on the spectrum. Eating out can be a hassle, with kids flapping their arms, chattering nonsense words, throwing tantrums when they have to wait for their food or just getting up to wander around immediately after eating. People stare; the kids get frustrated; parents and siblings blush.
Autism Eats, created by Boston parents Delphine and Lenard Zohn in 2015, provides a creative solution: Parents rent out private rooms in supportive restaurants and eat buffet-style meals, which cut down on waiting and the attendant frustration. Autism Eats has since spread to 11 states; Chicago’s first event was in March.
“It’s relaxed. You can sit anywhere. No one judges,” said Chicago participant Vania Marrero, who enjoyed the most recent event with her daughter Makayla, 4, who has mild autism and a fascination with dinosaurs, her son Jaylen Rivera, 12, who is also on the spectrum and is nonverbal, and her son Edgar Rivera, 17, who does not have autism.
“We’re in a comfortable place here. I tell my husband, ‘I feel like we’re all one family,'” Marrero said.
More than 70 people attended the first Chicago event; the second was smaller by design with about 30 people. Chicago organizer Shannon Dunworth hopes that 120 people will show up for the third event in June.
Dunworth’s husband, David, learned about Autism Eats on social media. He told Shannon, and they were immediately drawn to the concept. David’s 14-year-old son, Aidan, who has autism and is nonverbal, doesn’t like waiting when he goes out to eat, and sometimes, in order to relax, he makes loud chattering sounds.
That isn’t such a big issue now: “You get to the point when you have an older kid with autism, where you don’t really care what people think anymore,” Shannon says. David takes Aidan everywhere, and if there’s an issue, he handles it. But Shannon thought Autism Eats would be a great help to newer parents, who are often still adjusting to public reactions.
At Fireside, a smiling mother quickly becomes emotional when the conversation turns to “all the explaining.” When your kid doesn’t respond to a new friend who wants to play in the sandbox, or withdraws from another young child’s embrace, or doesn’t accept the “gift” of a dandelion, you have to explain, parents say. When your kid makes unusual sounds or gestures, you explain. When your kid is scared of the slide, you explain.
At the end of the day, you’re wiped out by all the explaining, the mother says, her eyes filling with tears: “It gets exhausting.”
While parents bond, children and teens roam the wooden walkways at the perimeter of the room, an enclosed patio with high ceilings and red brick walls.
There is some grunting and squealing, but no one is really loud, and no one runs particularly fast. The overall impression is not of chaos, but of movement. These kids like to move.
Jaylen Rivera walks at a moderate pace, an iPad in hand, occasionally making a sound such as “Ahh!” or “Mmm!” or smiling at a family member. When he wants more food, he goes over to the buffet and points: “Eh!” His older brother Edgar helps him with the mac and cheese. “Eh!” Jaylen says, and Edgar gets him bacon as well.
“Me and Jaylen, we share a bedroom so we’re together 24/7,” Edgar says, smiling. At this point, he says, he understands his brother’s communication pretty effortlessly.
Jalen Allen, 14, of Maywood, sits quietly as his mother, Candace Bell, chats with a reporter. Then, quite suddenly, his face lights up behind his heavy glasses. “You gonna put me on the front page?” Not on the front page, maybe, but certainly in the newspaper, he learns. Jalen introduces himself: He’s an artist, an actor, an entrepreneur and a skydiver.
He and his mom chuckle when asked, “Really, a skydiver?” It turns out he has been to one of those indoor skydiving centers that offer simulated experiences. Articulate and quick-witted, Jalen launches into a series of questions, some patterned on the questions a reporter asked his mom (“How old are you?”), others more creative: “If you had a million dollars — no, a billion dollars — what would you do with it?”
His mom says they’re still adjusting to a recent diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, a milder form of autism associated with intense interests and social challenges.
Some of the most active participants at the event are the Dunworths: Aidan isn’t much of a brunch person and isn’t attending, but Shannon acts as hostess and David dresses up in a Batman costume — a big hit with the younger kids, who stop, stare and hesitate, then generally respond to David’s request for a high-five.
Aidan’s 11-year-old brother, Shane, who does not have autism, is here too: helping out, chatting and just observing the spectacle.
“It’s a really good experience seeing so many families like mine interacting in a restaurant without being scared and being told to quiet down,” he says as the event is winding down.
“I thought it would be a great time, and it was.”
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