Sensory friendly dining event breaks down barriers

For many families, the occasional evening out for dinner at a restaurant is an enjoyable treat. But for parents who care for children with autism, the notion of eating out can be panic inducing.

“We did not eat out at a restaurant until my daughter was 7 or 8 years old,” says Karl Pierick, whose daughter, Emma, is on the autism spectrum. “It was too overwhelming, too loud and unpredictable.”

In an effort to provide a welcoming dining experience for all and to educate the public about autism, students and faculty at UW–Madison played a leading role in putting together an upcoming Sensory Friendly Family Night. The function runs from 4 to 8 p.m. on Monday, May 20, at the Culver’s restaurant located at 2102 W. Beltline Highway.

“Sometimes families who have children with special needs can face barriers to participating in events many of us take for granted,” says UW–Madison’s Karla Ausderau, an assistant professor with the Department of Kinesiology‘s occupational therapy program. “But these families are part of our community like everybody else. So if we can modify some of these barriers to encourage participation, I think we become a stronger community.”

According to the latest research, it’s estimated that 1 in 88 children have an autism spectrum disorder, with anywhere from 46 to 89 percent of those kids displaying feeding challenges. These issues are often linked to atypical sensory responses to one’s surroundings, which can make it very difficult to eat in restaurant settings due to negative public attitudes, and the lack of support and understanding from restaurant staff.

Madison, like many communities, has long been home to events such as sensory friendly movies, in which theaters raise the lights, lower the volume and generally do what they can to make the movie-going experience more enjoyable for those with autism and other sensory disorders. The aim is to translate some of those concepts to the Culver’s dining event.

“The idea is to create a space where these families can get out and enjoy themselves just like everyone else,” says Tanis Rusin, a first-year occupational therapy master’s student who pitched the notion of a Sensory Friendly Family Night event to Ausderau in the fall.

In addition to creating a setting in which those with autism are explicitly welcome, the event will take steps to limit sensory inputs while also educating members of the dining public and Culver’s staff about autism spectrum disorders.

Workers and others eating out that night will receive educational materials noting that:

  • It can take longer for a person with autism to process a response to a question; when taking orders, restaurant staff may have to wait longer for a response.
  • Individuals with autism don’t always express themselves in ways that are familiar to us. Behaviors can be triggered by frustration (not being able to communicate one’s needs), over-stimulation (sounds that are too loud or images that are too bright) or any number of factors. Be patient as the “behaviors” may actually be a way the individual is communicating.
  • Behaviors that may seem unusual to you are sometimes part of autism. Flapping hands, rocking back and forth, jumping and other movements are often normal coping mechanisms for individuals to calm themselves.

“Families with children with autism are still families,” says Ausderau, whose research is focused on studying eating and mealtimes among families and children with autism spectrum disorders. “And they are trying to orchestrate family mealtimes in the same way that everybody else is — they just have some other challenges or barriers they need to work through. These families have to think about a lot more things, like the sensory environment, the food and how it’s presented. There are just a whole range of issues these families have to think about in order to make mealtime successful, and it’s important to be aware of that.”

Ausderau notes that UW–Madison students studying for their master’s degrees in occupational therapy and LEND Trainees with the university’s Waisman Center have been the driving force behind Sensory Friendly Family Night. The Wisconsin Maternal and Child Health (MCH) Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (LEND) program provides training to improve systems of care that promote the prevention of disabilities and assure access to family-centered, community-based services and supports for children with neurodevelopmental disabilities and their families.

Pierick, who works with Ausderau’s research team as a family representative in the LEND training program, notes that his family eventually gained the confidence to try eating out at Denny’s.

“And she did it,” he says. “It was a major accomplishment.”

Pierick then started attending sensory friendly movies with his daughter, noting, “It was so nice as a family to not care if she was making noise, or moving around, and nobody else cared, either.” Pierick’s family has since attended movies with a “regular” crowd and is looking forward to the upcoming Culver’s dining event.

“It is so important for our kids to get ‘practice’ so they can successfully navigate the ‘real world,’” says Pierick.

Much like Culver’s stepped up as a leading partner in this initial Sensory Friendly Family Night event, Ausderau is hopeful that other restaurants will come forward to help host similar events on a consistent basis moving forward. And with a little luck, the “real world” will become a bit more enlightened as well.

“The goal is to not only have an environment in which families with special needs can eat and enjoy themselves, but also a place where the community can come and have dinner together,” says Ausderau.

—Todd Finkelmeyer