Lenard Zohn used to love going out to eat with his family. But as his son Adin, who has autism, got older, the outings got more difficult. Adin sometimes got overwhelmed by the noise and commotion of restaurants, resulting in behavior that was upsetting to restaurant staff and patrons and stressful for the Zohns. They found themselves going out less and less.
The Zohn's story is one that many families affected by autism can identify with. Isolation becomes a standard method for coping with the challenges of the illness.
Zohn knew his wasn't the only family struggling with the issue, so he decided to do something about it. Two years ago, he launched Autism Eats, a judgment-free zone where families affected by autism can gather to connect, share stories and just enjoy a simple meal.
Zohn accomplishes this feat by taking care of the prep work. He contacts restaurants to book a large enough venue to give kids with autism ample space to move around. He minimizes the sensory-overload by requesting that the lights and music are kept low.
All of the Autism Eats meals are served buffet-style so the kids don't have to order or wait around for the food to be ready. Parents pre-pay so that they don't have to wait for a check. And the menu is always simple — pizza, chicken fingers, fries, pasta and salad.
Most of the Autism Eats events are just north of Boston, near where Zohn and his family live. But that hasn't stopped folks from coming from as far away as New Hampshire and Cape Cod to join them. For families of kids with autism, the simple act of going out to eat in a social but non-judgmental environment is worth the trip.
At a recent event, kids wandered around, made noises, cut in line, and rocked in their chairs. But no one stared or got upset. Maureen Callahan, who was there with her 15-year-old son Rory, who has autism, summed up the experience in an interview with the Boston Globe: "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.”
The Autism Eats events have become so popular that many folks outside the autism community are taking notice. The group was recently commended by the Massachusetts House of Representatives for its efforts to “make our community more inclusive and comfortable for all.” And the Zohns have been contacted about ways to use the Autism Eats model to help families affected by Alzheimer's disease and dementia who have similar struggles with isolation.