Families With Autistic Kids Rediscover A Simple Pleasure: Dining Out

Private dining means no judgment.

Families With Autistic Kids Rediscover A Simple Pleasure: Dining Out

Ilana Gordon

Private dining means no judgment.

It’s a Sunday evening in mid-March and the back room of Chicago’s Fireside Restaurant and Lounge is full. The walls are adorned with St. Patrick’s Day decorations, left over from the night before. The NCAA tournament is on and parents mill about, discussing their bracket picks.

An Autism Eats event. | Lenard Zohn/Autism Eats

It’s a regular Sunday night and everyone in the room hopes to kick back, relax and enjoy a quiet meal with family. The only thing differentiating this group from any other group of restaurant patrons is that these families all have children with autism.

A recent government survey suggests that one of every 45 children is diagnosed with autism, a disorder that impairs communication and social interaction and causes behavioral challenges. The autism spectrum is wide, and while some sufferers are high-functioning, others require constant supervision and care.

Lenard and Delphine Zohn are intimately familiar with the challenges; their 12-year-old son, Adin, was diagnosed when he was two. Adin’s condition makes it difficult for the family to eat out, and after years of avoiding restaurants altogether, the couple realized there had to be a better solution. In 2014, they co-founded Autism Eats, an organization dedicated to providing autistic families with the opportunity to dine out and socialize without fear of judgment.

After years of avoiding restaurants altogether, Lenard and Delphine realized there had to be a better solution.

Autism Eat’s first dinner took place at an Italian restaurant, close to the family’s home in Andover, MA. The meal was a hit and shortly after, the organization received grant money from the state and a write-up in the Boston Globe. Soon, other states expressed interest in forming their own chapters — now, three years later, Autism Eats has branches in 10 states. Another five states expect to introduce their own branches within the next three months.

All events utilize a buffet to reduce wait times. | Lenard Zohn/Autism Eats

Vania Marerro has five children; the youngest two are autistic. When asked how often she gets out, she answers promptly: “I don’t.” Her 12-year-old son, Jaylen, is low-functioning and her 3-year-old daughter, Makayla, won’t eat regular food. Going out for meals is a struggle. Vania says, “Sometimes we just say, ‘Forget it, we’re not going to go.’”

Things have been difficult for Vania since Makayla’s diagnosis back in November. This is her first time attending an event like Autism Eats and, after bonding with Chicago club organizer Shannon Dunworth on the phone, she decided to make the 35-minute drive up from her home on Chicago’s South Side. “I’m really excited because I can meet other parents that are going through exactly what I’m going through and not be stared at,” she tells me.

Lenard Zohn likes to say that if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. And just as every autistic person is unique, so is every Autism Eats dinner. These meals take place in different restaurants across the country, but they share a few commonalities: They’re held in private rooms to give the families some privacy and space to spread out. The food is served buffet-style and families purchase tickets ahead of time, in case they need to make a hasty retreat.

Lenard Zohn likes to say that if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.

When I arrived at the Chicago event, someone had already dimmed the lights in Fireside’s back room to accommodate kids with sensory issues. A teenage volunteer passed out squishy green stress balls to help curb anxiety. Children wearing oversize headphones helped themselves to plates of macaroni and pizza rolls before returning to their family’s assigned table to eat. Others roamed around, jumping in place, tugging at the donated balloons and, every so often, screaming. Nobody cared.

Autism Eats doesn’t have the funds to pay for restaurant space, so establishments donate their rooms. Dinners — which are held approximately every three months — frequently sell out and families travel from all over to attend. These events draw such large crowds, some clubs are now branching out into other meals: On April 22nd, the Chicago club will host its first brunch at Fireside. A similar brunch is scheduled for April 15th, in Victorville, California.

Fireside’s event coordinator, Annie Cathcart, says that getting to work on events like Autism Eats “is special.” She says the restaurant is happy to make any accommodations they can, adding, “This is about [families] going out, having a good time and relaxing.”

“This is about [families] going out, having a good time and relaxing.”

Autism makes it difficult for some sufferers to communicate, but without supportive communities, parents and siblings of autistic children also suffer. Stacie Green says she began learning about the autistic community back in 2006, when she first suspected that her son Erik might be suffering from the condition. Of her three children, one is neurotypical and two are on the spectrum.

After Erik’s diagnosis, Stacie says, “I felt so incredibly alone. I didn’t have the support I needed; I had to find out stuff on my own.” Since then, Stacie has joined multiple Facebook groups; attended conferences and fundraising walks; and become a certified Applied Behavior Analysis therapist who supports fellow autistic families. She says attending events like Autism Eats “is like a breath of fresh air. You don’t have to explain your kids.”

For Lenard Zohn, co-founding Autism Eats has come with many rewards, but the best part is having another excuse to spend time with his son. “Going out to eat together as a family is something that we weren’t able to do for the first many years after Adin received his diagnosis,” he says. “And the fact that we can do it now together, and enjoy it, is important.”