Autism, dining out and a side of kindness

Posted at 5:34 PM, Apr 01, 2013
and last updated 2013-04-01 19:34:05-04
By Becky Perlow

CNN and Kat Kinsman

(CNN) — Things are not always as they appear to be. Our recent story “The waitress, the autistic girl and the broken hamburger” shared the experiences of Anna Kaye MacLean, a young woman who was deeply touched by the kindness of a Chili’s server to her seven-year-old sister Arianna, who has autism.

While many people interpret Arianna’s behavior – sometimes involving violent tantrums and grunting – as uncontrolled brattiness, her older sister will take the time to explain the condition if asked. Occasionally, fellow restaurant patrons will ask to be moved to other tables, give dirty looks, or criticize MacLean’s handling of the situation. While the family has never been asked to leave a restaurant, they’re keenly aware of other patrons’ comfort and will leave of their own accord.

Scenes like this play out in public every day, as evidenced by the over 650 comments that poured in when we posted the story. In observance of National Autism Awareness Month and April 2, World Autism Awareness Day, we’re sharing insight from some of our commenters who have experience weathering the minefield that is a restaurant meal.

Please add your voice to the mix and upload a report to CNN iReport’s new assignment: Living with autism: Out in public.

Commenter Autism Mom knows firsthand how far a little kindness and understanding in a public situation can go. Her 17-year-old daughter was diagnosed with autism at age two, and she recently used her experiences to offer hope to some strangers in need of kindness.

“In the early years, there were MANY times we left a restaurant with our tails between our legs because she had a meltdown — parents with an autistic child learn quickly not to make eye contact with those around us in these situations because we know we would see only reproach and disgust.

One time recently we were seated adjacent to a family where one child seemed to have a learning disability. His behavior spiraled out of control, and eventually the family left (before finishing dinner), leaving the mom at the table waiting to pay the check. I approached her and told her of our own experiences when Lauren was younger, and told her to KEEP GOING OUT, the reactions they dealt with were the result of ignorance — they had every right to experience a normal life as a family, and that it WOULD get better.

She broke down and wept, having never had a kind word after a situation like that. But she had a smile on her face when she left and was no longer feeling ashamed for her son. If you’re the one staring at an unruly child — please give them the benefit of the doubt and don’t make judgments when you don’t have the full story.”

Khawar Nehal shed some light on some commonly occurring behaviors associated with eating. Arianna’s upset occurred when she was served a burger that was cut in half, rather than left whole. When it arrived, she kissed the burger and told it, “I missed you.”

“Some people growl a bit when they eat. It is akin to the MMMMM of McDonalds. It means I am loving it. Autistic kids have different thought process. The growling is to let you know clearly they are really enjoying this food. The words may not be perfect for a child because they might have trouble “finding” the appropriate words.

The “I missed you” means that the child has seen the complete burger possible and probably was provided the adult burger before in a previous visit. Or seen the adult burger delivered before. The missed you means more likely they have already had a “complete” one piece burger. The reason the autistic child wants a one piece is it is less messy. A messy burger shall make them look “more autistic” and they want to avoid that.”

Dad of 2 on the spectrum explained that it is crucial to pick one’s battles, especially if it’s in the best interest of the community.

“There is a balance that needs to be struck. Yes, we can not always give in to the child. I have a 4 and 5 year old that are both near the middle of the spectrum. It is a never ending fight at home to not give in to their inappropriate desires. If I gave my son a burger, and he insisted on getting a new one because it was broken, I will endure a 2 hour meltdown before I would consider giving in.

However, in this case, they were in a social situation. They either give in, or face the possibility that they will have to leave the restaurant because of uncontrollable meltdowns. What if the meltdowns include self damaging behaviors, or stripping off of clothes, or violent outbursts towards others. In a community situation, the best option is often to give in, and work on those issues in the home.”

It pays to be a regular, finds single dad, Mike A. He, his seven-year-old son with autism and his nine-year-old neurotypical daughter have gotten to know the staff – and it’s been beneficial for both parties.

“I now do the call-ahead seating and leave about a half hour window before our arrival to hopefully guarantee that we are at the front of the waiting line at least on the clipboard at the hostess station when we arrive. Many of the servers who know us already have placed the standing order Brody and my daughter before they have even come to say hello. Those who don’t know us either get an introduction by myself, or another member of the staff who has served us before and have been given a little insight into who we are and what our meal will be about.

In the case of my local Chili’s, one of the waitresses actually came to sit with us one day and started asking me questions about autism. As a result of time spent with us and opening a dialogue and allowing her to see Brody and his sister on almost a weekly basis, she then had her child evaluated and he was found to also be on the spectrum.”

Jackie Weiler turned a negative restaurant experience into on opportunity to educate others about autism.

“We were regulars at a sushi restaurant and one visit my three-year-old old son with high functioning autism was having a hard day. He began playing with rice and water. He has a lot of sensory issues. He threw some rice on the floor and was splashing water on the table. I quickly cleaned it up, explained to the waitress who also serves as the host that he has autism.

A few weeks later the waitress recognized us and offered to allow us to take advantage of the “happy hour” rate and to take the food home. I thought this was a nice accommodating and thanked her. I explained that it’s sometimes hard going to restaurants as my son has autism. Upon returning to the restaurant to pick up my food the waitress asked me to not bring my son into the restaurant that I should come alone.

I asked her if she really meant this, as this is against the Americans with Disability law. I asked her if she understood what that meant and she made the gesture (finger twirling on the head) that he was crazy.

I contacted a local disability advocacy group. They agreed to help me and we met with the owner and explained the ADA law. I offered to not file a Department of Justice complaint if he did the following 1. ADA training for all of his staff, 2. ADA assessment of his restaurant and 3. write an apology that can be published in the advocacy group’s newsletter. He agreed and did complete all. He also decided to give $500 to the autism charity of my choice. I decided to use the event as an opportunity for education, change and advocacy.”

Momoftwoautism doesn’t necessarily expect fellow patrons to understand, but she’s grateful for kindness when she comes across it.

“Kids with autism do not get over things like other kids do. Their brains do not work that way. They tunnel vision on something that upsets them and their minds get stuck like a needle in a scratch on an long playing record.

In a public place you do what need to do to keep the child calm. I am sure the parents would have gladly paid for another burger and put up with any attitude the server presented if things had gone that way.

I don’t expect the whole world to change for my kids. I do however really appreciate when the world gives me a break and does its best to understand them instead of judging them. Believe me, we don’t want our kids spoiled so that everything revolves around them. We want them to live in the world reasonably.”

Nicole, mother of a 21-year-old with autism, is well aware of the effort it takes to accommodate her family and just asks for a little patience.

“My son refuses to eat with regular silverware and insists on using plastic utensils, his food must be on separate plates/bowls as they cannot touch, and he insists on ordering his own meal, which is often given in a nonsensical, rambling manner and usually requires translation. Most servers are very patient with him — which is GREATLY appreciated — but that’s not always the case.

Our family wants to dine out like other typical families but it just takes a little extra effort to do so and sometimes, people are simply not as willing to help us to have that experience. It costs nothing to be kind, and as this story proves, the rewards are so much greater.”

Christy is the mother of a ten-year-old son with high-functioning autism, who reacted well to repeated exposure to the restaurant environment. To get him there, she had to develop a very thick skin.

“We were very, very lucky he ws diagnosed when he was quite young, to expose him to as much as possible so he could deal with the greater environment. I remember taking him to restaurants when he was 2 and 3 years old. The noise and crowding were overwhelming to him. We still took him, and frequently. He at first would sit under the table. Occasionally, a small hand would dart up and snatch food off of the plate set for him. And, my ex-husband and I didn’t shorten our meals, didn’t leave early, didn’t do anything. He was desensitizing.

I didn’t care that other diners stared and sometimes even told me I was the worst mother in the world. Today, I can take my son into any restaurant, and he utilizes good manners, is polite, courteous, and sits properly at the table.”

And to patrons who are less than understanding of the sometimes uncontrollable behavior exhibited by children with autism, Ann suggests a solution of her own.

“Everyone knows that certain restaurants are family establishments. If you don’t like dealing with families and children than maybe you should be kept at home until you can learn to comport yourself in a compassionate and empathic manner.”

Please add your voice to the mix and upload a report to CNN iReport’s new assignment: Living with autism: Out in public.

Some comments have been edited and condensed for clarity.
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