Lenard Zohn has a taste for dining out. But as the father of a child with autism, it can be stressful. "If I take my eyes off of him, my son [sometimes] runs around the restaurant or takes something from another customer's table. It can require a lot of explaining."
The Bostonian wished for a way his family could enjoy a meal without having to worry about 12-year-old Adin disrupting other diners. In 2014, he and his wife, Delphine, came up with an idea. They gathered 100 people with autism, their families, friends, therapists, and teachers, and headed to Andolini's Restaurant in Andover, Massachusetts, for Italian fare and fellowship. "We were surrounded by families like ours. Nobody had to explain anything to the next table. It was perfect," says the sales and business development executive.
One in 68 children has autism and more than 3 million Americans are on the spectrum. The Zohns wanted those with a diagnosis and their families to experience the compassion and camaraderie on display that night. And so, Autism Eats was born.
On designated nights, autism families and their supporters—typically 60 to 100 people—sit down for brunch or dinner at a carefully selected restaurant or other venue. In addition to setting aside a section or private room, the eateries take measures to ensure the comfort of their special guests. Food is served buffet-style to reduce long waits. Staff receive guidance in advance, so they know what to expect and how best to accommodate the families. The lighting is adjusted for the sake of those with sensory issues.
The impact of the event can be profound. During those stress-free, fun-filled meals, families develop friendships that last long after plates are cleared. Since the launch of Autism Eats three years ago, more than 2,000 guests—many of them regulars—have participated in nearly a dozen states. Zohn says they are just getting started. "Millions of families are touched by autism. We want all of them to have a chance to join us."