Four years ago, when the Zohn family went out for dinner, 6-year-old Adin grew tired of waiting for the food to arrive. He bolted from the table, managing to grab pizza off the plates of three other tables before his father caught him.
“We stopped being able to go out,” says Adin’s father, Lenard. “It just was too stressful. There would be outbursts, crying, flopping on the floor, or he might not like anything on the menu. Having a child with autism can make going to restaurants extremely difficult.”
Zohn and his wife, Delphine, who live in Andover, knew they weren’t the only parents of kids with autism who missed the social aspect of dining out. So two years ago, they started Autism Eats, a kind of supper club for families with children on the autism spectrum. The Zohns book a restaurant for a large group, after consulting with management to make sure that the setup is autism-friendly.
“We knew exactly what didn’t work, so we felt if we could reverse that, we could bring a community together and allow everyone to be successful when they wanted to go out,” said Zohn, who works for a physician staffing company. “Many families feel it is not worth the effort, and they stop venturing out. It can be isolating and lonely.”
Autism Eats attempts to provide as normal a dinner as possible, in a nonjudgmental atmosphere. “I don’t think anyone is surprised or shocked by another child’s behavior,” Zohn said. “Everyone gets it.” The dinners average about 75 people, including extended family and even teachers. Those with autism range from toddlers to young adults.
A brain disorder, autism is characterized by difficulties in social interaction, communication, and repetitive behavior such as rocking or sticking fingers in ears. It is the fastest-growing diagnosis for developmental disability in the United States, affecting 1 in 68 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On a recent night, about 60 people showed up at Andolini’s Restaurant in Andover for a holiday dinner. Zohn had booked much of the restaurant, which meant the group had two large adjoining rooms, the better for wanderers. The Zohns had brought some squishy hand toys for anxious kids to squeeze.
Accommodations were made for the sensory-sensitive. Background music was calm. Lights were dimmed. To avoid waits, there were no menus or table service: a buffet yielded pizza, pasta, chicken fingers, french fries, and salad. There was also no wait for the check: People paid in advance online.
No one cared when 9-year-old Matthew Keamy of North Andover cut in line at the buffet. “He just went right through and people made room for him,” said his mother, Carolyn Rahal, who was also dining with Matthew’s twin, Joseph, and Ava, 11, who are not autistic. It was their first Autism Eats dinner, and it was going well.
“Once when we went to Fuddruckers, Matthew went and touched someone’s fries and tried to grab their food,” said his mother. “I was super embarrassed and apologized and bought them another meal.”
But at Andolini’s, Matthew sat and ate his pasta. Yes, he uttered some sounds, which his mother called “his happy noises.” But her family was able to eat in peace. “I feel absolutely comfortable here,” she said.
Moreover, Matthew felt comfortable, she said. No one looked at him when he gestured and made noises. “If we were at another restaurant, heads would turn,” Rahal said. Here, no heads turned when 15-year-old Rory Callahan held his ears, or when 5-year-old Cole Minicucci headed to another table and tugged at a balloon, or when Adin Zohn made for the door.
The Callahans — Rory, his 16-year-old brother and their parents — have gone to all eight of the Autism Eats dinners, held every three months or so. At this dinner, they were the first to arrive, and the buffet was not quite ready. Rory rocked a bit and blocked his ears. But he said he was “happy,” and looking forward to the pizza.
His mother, Maureen, loves the dinners because they can go out “just like any other family” and not have to worry. “There’s no stigma; we can relax and have fun. It sounds like a simple thing, but it’s so out of reach for us,” she said. “The crowds, the long waits, any surprises, are hard.”
The dinners can be a boon for siblings of those with autism, too. “Especially for tweens who can get embarrassed by siblings,” says Zohn, who has a 12-year-old daughter. “This gives them the chance to say, ‘Hey, I’m not the only one.’ ”
At a nearby table, Hillary and Jonathan Minicucci of Methuen were there with Cole, who has autism, and 3-year-old Quinn, who does not. It was their first dinner with Autism Eats. “This little guy has autism and we were suddenly thrown into this world we knew nothing about,” said his father.
“We’re so excited about this,” said Hillary. “He can be himself and we don’t have to worry that we’re bothering anyone else’s dinner.”
Russ Kenn is executive director of the New England chapter of Autism Speaks, a national research and advocacy organization. He says that such dinners provide an outlet for families who often feel isolated.
“I do think the world is more forgiving, with the awareness that has improved over the years,” Kenn said. “But there is still a stigma attached, some of it self-imposed by families. There’s a lot of stress on these parents, and sometimes they feel it’s the lesser of two evils just to stay home.”
Melina Sorth of Lowell knows that feeling. At Andolini’s, she brought her two boys, both with autism: Landon, 6, and Hunter, 3. Her husband works nights, so her brother, Armani Thao, was there to help. While the boys ate chicken fingers, fries, and pizza, the adults ate pasta and salad.
“It is really hard to find a restaurant they love,” said Sorth. As Landon fingered a squishy toy and played on his iPad, Hunter stood in his chair and pulled up his shirt to reveal his bare belly.
Sometimes, the boys will take off their shoes and shirts or throw a tantrum in a restaurant, and when they do, Sorth quickly leaves. “We try to be respectful,” she said. “But here, they can run around and do whatever they want.” She has been to four Autism Eats dinners; the boys have yet to throw a tantrum.
People have driven from New Hampshire, Springfield, and Cape Cod to attend the dinners, which have generally been held north of Boston. And the larger community is starting to take notice. In November, Autism Eats was commended by the Massachusetts House of Representatives for its efforts to “make our community more inclusive and comfortable for all.”
Others, too, see inspiration in the group. At the Andover dinner, Emily Kearns and Stacey Hammerlind, who work with the caregivers network the Massachusetts Lifespan Respite Coalition, were there to explore replicating the model for families dealing with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. “There’s a similar isolation factor, if they can’t eat like others or follow certain norms,” Kearns said. “Their families can’t go out, either.”
For the Autism Eats families, the shared meal was helping to lift that burden. As she left with her three kids, Rahal was smiling, and so were her kids. “They’re so happy,” she said. “And that means I’m happy.”