A few weeks ago, my husband and I took our toddler out to eat and she behaved like most 3-year-olds.
She was standing up on the booth seat. She was dropping toys and silverware and crawling underneath the table. She would talk very loudly so we had to keep reminding her to use her library voice. The breaking point was when she pulled a jar of plant food out of the indoor planter behind our booth.
My husband and I just looked at each other across the table. I said: “This is why we don’t go out to eat.”
I can barely keep one child under control. I don’t know how parents do it with more than one. I know we certainly have it easier than the families I interviewed last week about the upcoming Dine 4 Autism event.
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More than 50 Triangle restaurants will donate a portion of their profits on April 21 to the Wake, Orange, Chatham and Durham county chapters of the Autism Society of North Carolina. The event raises money for the local groups, which provide support to families with autistic children, and helps send children and adults with autism to a sleep-away camp. The event is also an effort to build awareness about autism. One in 58 children in North Carolina was identified with autism spectrum disorder, according to a 2010 project by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dining out with children with autism has its own challenges. These children can be on special diets, including avoiding gluten, a popular alternative treatment for autism. They can be very particular about their food; a meal that isn’t exactly as ordered can prompt a meltdown. They can be sensitive to light and noise and therefore, can be overwhelmed by new experiences or loud, crowded spaces. They also struggle with waiting. This is one reason, a parent told me, that the children can often be seen playing with an iPad; it allows them to focus on something and tune out distractions.
Lisa Kaylie of Chapel Hill describes her 12-year-old son, Simon, as high-functioning, very talkative but rigid. (He can be very abrupt when answering a question.) She remembers taking a 2-year-old Simon to a taqueria with a friend and her children. Simon threw such a tantrum that the other mom said they needed to leave. After that, Kaylie was reluctant to take Simon out to eat.
“For years, I couldn’t even go to McDonald’s,” Kaylie said.
Things have gotten better. They eventually ventured to McDonald’s and have since graduated to sit-down restaurants, but dining out is still challenging.
Her son loves to cook. In fact, on the day I talked to Kaylie, Simon was excited about making his mother a frittata. She later sent a photo of him wearing a chef’s hat and Batman T-shirt, chopping green onions for that meal.
While Simon loves to cook, he only likes to eat about four things. One thing he detests is oregano.
Kaylie says she often tells waiters: “Please do not sprinkle oregano on his pizza. I cannot tell what will happen.”
Leslie Welch, a leader of the Wake County autism society chapter, has similar challenges with her son, Josh, 12, who is nonverbal and severely affected by autism.
“We didn’t dine out with him for five years or more,” said Welch of Cary.
Welch said they have developed a strategy for dining out with their son. He is on a gluten-free diet so they look for restaurants that can accommodate such requests. He can be impatient and so they bring an iPad. They cannot take him out when he is hungry and often take home some of the grilled chicken and vegetables that they order for him. They always request a table away from other diners. Despite all of that, Welch said, “His behavior can still be amazingly bad.”
While Welch hopes families who aren’t affected by autism will dine out in support of the event, she also wants the public to appreciate the special challenges she and other families face.
“I’d like to be given a little bit of a pass,” Welch said. “A lot of people assume it is just bad parenting on display. Believe me, if we could strongly parent ourselves out of this, we would.”
Dine 4 Autism
More than 50 Triangle restaurants will donate a portion of their sales on April 21 to benefit Triangle families affected by autism.
The all-day event is organized by the Wake, Orange, Chatham, and Durham county chapters of the Autism Society of North Carolina. Proceeds will benefit these volunteer-run chapters, which provide support and information to families affected by autism. Proceeds also will fund scholarships for Camp Royall, a sleep-away camp experience for children and adults with autism.
Participating restaurants include Tyler’s Taproom in Apex, Carrboro and Durham; Patrick Jane’s Gourmet Pizza Bar in Cary; Bull City Burger and Brewery, Daisy Cakes, Mattie B’s Public House and Six Plates Wine Bar in Durham; The Mason Jar Tavern and My Way Tavern in Holly Springs; Moonlight Pizza Co., Sola Coffee Cafe, Spring Rolls in Raleigh; and Milton’s Pizza and Pasta in Wake Forest and Raleigh. A full list can be found at dine4autism.com.