April 26, 2007

Eating Out With Autistic Children (article)

Skokie-Review.com Member of the Sun-Times News Group

April 26, 2007

Restaurant visits tough when kids have autism

Last Friday night, I went out for a late dinner with friends. The company was excellent; the food passable. But when I remarked that the meal seemed overpriced, a companion pointed out that we'd spent two and a half hours in a cheerful setting with great service.

"You're paying for a piece of temporary real estate when you go out to a restaurant," he said.

This comment got me thinking about just what kind of environment we expect when we go out to eat. Most of us, I'd wager, simply want a congenial place to chat and nosh on enjoyable food.
Yet for families of kids with disabilities, this is a simple pleasure often denied. Worse, these moms, dads and kids often get censured by other diners -- and sometimes even the staff -- if their children start to act up, as they so often do.

I recently sat in on a meeting of the Autism Task Force of the North Suburban Special Education District. This group of parents, mostly moms, works hard on autism issues in order to help other families like themselves.

These parents would also like to take their kids out for a meal once in awhile.

Gerry told me how she'd take her now-grown son out and hear comments like, "Look at that little brat." Mia explained how hard it is on her other children when her autistic son becomes unruly and the whole family suddenly has to leave.

"The other kids get so compromised by a child with a disability," she said.
Ann has been smarting over one incident for years. She and a friend had gone out to lunch, bringing both of their children. Then Ann's son, who's autistic, started getting fussy.

Ruined lunch?
When two other diners loudly told the manager their meal had been ruined by "that child," while glaring in Ann's direction, she started to feel pretty fussy herself.

Still, Ann and her friend tried to explain to the women that the boy had a disability, but the women merely ignored Ann and told her friend, "You have nothing to worry about. Your child behaved fine," before stalking out.

It was clear the irate ladies felt their lunchtime real estate had been pollluted by an undesirable neighbor.

The task force members know plenty of families who've just stopped going out to eat. It's too traumatic, they say. Yet staying home all of the time can be isolating. Besides, many autistic children need to learn basic social skills like eating in a restaurant, ordering from a menu and handling money. All of this takes practice.

Michelle Wolke has spent 35 years helping children with autism learn to eat out. The Northbrook resident, who runs a private therapy practice with her son Jason Portman, takes kids from all over the city and suburbs out on restaurant excursions.

Though Wolke herself is immune to embarrassment after all these years, she knows it can be annoying or even frightening to other diners when a child suddenly throws a tantrum, tries to run away, or starts shouting. One of her charges, in fact, has a habit of announcing, "All done!" before suddenly throwing whatever is in front of him across the restaurant.

Changing behavior
Wolke is, of course, working with the child on correcting this behavior, but she also warns other diners when she brings in her students.

"I tell them I'm here with an autistic kid and that he might throw something or kick," she said. She also asks to be seated in a back booth, brings activities for the children to play with while waiting, and asks the manager for quick service and patient wait staff.

The best restaurants, according to the parents I spoke to, are understanding and accomodating. They prepare meals according to an autistic child's special request, move them to the front of lines, and understand if the family needs to make a quick exit.

But what about the rest of us?
If you see a child throwing a tantrum or being especially fussy, ask the parent if and how you can help. Don't judge if you see a kid watching a portable DVD player while the rest of the family eats, or if a mom lets her boy sing to himself as she finishes her meal.

Whether you're at McDonalds or at Charlie Trotter's, be patient and remember that these kids may be unruly but they're still kids. Just like any other kids, they deserve to go out and order a meal.

The rate of children born with autism has risen from 1 in 166 to 1 in 150 in just two years, according to the Autism Society of America. More and more parents are bearing the immensely heartbreaking, high-stress burden of trying to raise an autistic child as normally as possible.

The least we can do is welcome them onto the grounds of our temporary patch of real estate.

Stephanie Fosnight may be reached at sfosnight@pioneerlocal.com.

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