For families with autism, a stress-free night out

For families with autism, a stress-free night out

Dinner at a restaurant is always an unpredictable adventure with kids.

But for parents of children with autism, it’s even more stressful.

Autism, a group of complex brain development disorders, frequently causes problems with communication or social interaction, as well as repetitive behaviors.

Loud noises, bright lights, crowds, even waiting too long for food can upset children with autism, leading to uncomfortable outbursts.

“Inevitably your child decides to cry through the whole meal,” said Deanna Planitz, whose son Jordan, 7, has autism. “We have been asked to leave restaurants before. You hate it if you’re seated behind, say, a couple celebrating their 25th anniversary. You find yourself apologizing through the whole entire meal."

That’s why Planitz has put together an event designed to provide a stress-free dinner out for families dealing with autism.

“Autism Eats,” the first event of its kind in Illinois, is scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Nov. 15 at Mariah’s Restaurant in Springfield.

The idea came from an East Coast father, Lenard Vohn, who wanted to provide “autism-friendly non-judgmental environments for family dining, socializing and connecting with others who share similar joys and challenges,” according to the website AutismEats.org.

Planitz, who lives about 20 miles south of Springfield, contacted Vohn after hearing about the project. He offered to help if she organized the logistics.

“I think this is something we need in our community, desperately,” Planitz said.

The area has lots of children with autism, she said, but families are too often isolated and need more social contact.

“I thought, why not get us all together? My goal is two things: I want to meet new families and make new friends,” she said.

The Planitz family last went out together in June, for pizza. It did not go well.

“My husband said, ‘You know, it’s not worth it. I’m exhausted,’” she said.

Since then they’ve taken turns going out to dinner with their 10-year-old twins, Joshua and Jeremy.

“It’s not that Jordan can help it. Cognitively, just so many things bother him. He doesn’t have the verbal ability to tell us, ‘Hey it’s loud in here,’ or ‘It’s hot in here,’ or ‘I need to go outside and walk around.’”

For the “Autism Eats” dinners, the entire restaurant is rented out and reserved only for autistic families. The lighting is dimmed. The televisions are turned off. Everyone buys tickets in advance, so they don’t have to mess with a bill or tip. And the food is ready when they walk in.

“As soon as you get there your child can eat. You can sit anywhere you like. The kids can go anywhere they want or do anything they want. If they want to walk up and down the aisles, they can do that. And they’re not going to bother anybody because we’re all in the same boat,” Planitz said.

The first two restaurants Planitz called refused to host the dinner. One owner told her, “Me and autistics don’t mix.”

“I was pretty upset when I left,” she said.

But the Mariah’s owner has been “amazing,” she said, “welcoming us with open arms.”

Planitz is hoping to draw families from Champaign-Urbana to the dinner, too.

Teresa O’Connor, director of the C-U Autism Network, a parent support organization, believes there will be interest. The group has started similar get-togethers here, including a pizza party at their last monthly meeting at Brixx Pizza, whose owner has been supportive of families with autism, she said.

“He had his best wait staff there,” she said. “I want to say we pretty much filled up the whole restaurant.”

Former Springfield resident Becky Moore, who has a 16-year-old son with autism, is among those interested.Blog Photo

She and her husband lived there for 16 years before relocating to Champaign-Urbana for a job two years ago. They were active with the Springfield autism community and still have good friends there.

“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” she said. “It’s very hard to go out to eat with a child with autism.”

Restaurants are usually crowded, and the noise, bright lights and other stimulation put them on “complete sensory overload,” she said. That can trigger repetitive behaviors — turning circles or “jerky” movements. Before long, people are staring.

“That’s when we tend to say, ‘Let’s just get out of here, pay the bill, no one is enjoying themselves right now,’” Moore said. “There are other times you can go out and have a very nice time. Sometimes the stars are aligned. Sometimes it’s not that crowded, it’s not that noisy, you get the right food, everybody is happy. You eat, and you go, ‘We did that, that was normal.’ But we just tend to have more of those awkward experiences because our kids have autism. They can’t help it.”

In Springfield, she and her husband started spending time with other couples who also had children with autism, by having them over for barbecues instead of going out. They could relax with a wine cooler while the kids played in the back yard. It was more relaxing, because everybody understood, she said.

“If somebody can rent out a restaurant, or even a room in a restaurant and make a night of it ... I think you have to seize those opportunities,” said Moore, who also has a son Joshua, 10, and a daughter, Isabella, 2. “It’s all about just trying to find enjoyment in life whatever your situation is.”

Planitz knows about that. Jordan was also born with a very rare brain disease called MPPH syndrome, characterized by numerous birth defects and developmental delays. His brain is essentially outgrowing his skull. He didn’t talk until he was 4 and can’t care for himself. He has daily seizures — five to eight on a good day, his mom said.

Jordan has had three open-heart surgeries and is terribly susceptible to pneumonia. But he can’t tell people “I can’t breathe” when he’s getting sick, so he bites, or kicks, or screams.

Still, Jordan, a “champion child” for the Illinois Children’s Miracle Network in 2013, is her “blessing.”
There are days when she thinks, “‘Mommy needs a break.’ But then there are days when you stop and think, ‘Wow, I can’t believe God has given us seven whole years with him.’ I’m just so thankful for each and every birthday.”

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Julie Wurth blogs about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 217-351-5226, jwurth@news-gazette.com or Twitter.com/jawurth.

Autism Eats

Time: 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 15
Place: Mariah’s restaurant, 3317 Robbins Road, Springfield
Tickets: $22 for adults, $16 for kids (includes tax and tip)
Menu: All-you-can eat buffet featuring chicken parmesan, spaghetti, pizza, salads, bread, chicken tenders, French fries, desserts and drinks
Tickets: Go to AutismEats.org

C-U Autism Network
This support network for parents hosts monthly meetings on the first Thursday of every month, as well as family events, such as bowling, swimming at the YMCA and mini-golf. For information contact Director Teresa O’Connor, teresa@autismillinois.org, or visit cuautismnetwork.org.

 

Photo: Becky Moore and her husband B.J. have Sunday dinner with two of their children, Isabella, 2 and Jacob, 16, who is autistic. Holly Hart/The News-Gazette

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