Chicago group makes sure ‘Autism Eats’


» Courtesy LENARD ZOHN

Autism Eats, an organization that provides a safe space for families with autistic children to eat in public without judgment, is having its first Chicago dinner on March 18 at the Fireside Inn, 5739 N. Ravenswood Ave.

By Kendrah Villiesse

Shannon Dunworth knew she could not be the only one who noticed stares from patrons in restaurants as her stepson, who has autism, roamed around and impatiently waited for his food. Knowing that others felt unwelcome and disrespected when taking autistic family members out for dinner, the Chicagoan wondered what she could do.

“You can feel other people staring at you where you feel judged,” Dunworth said. “It can create a little bit of stress where you think you are bothering other people. It is not that fun to go out because of that.”

When her husband brought home an article about a Massachusetts-based program called Autism Eats in that arranges dinners for families with autistic children, Dunworth decided to reach out to the founder to establish a Chicago chapter.

Founded in December 2016, Autism Eats Chicago is scheduled to hold its first dinner March 18 at the Fireside Inn, 5739 N. Ravenswood Ave. Families of autistic kids are invited to come, relax and enjoy a buffet-style meal that is paid for in advance to ensure a relaxing night. Depending on attendance, the organization will either have the whole restaurant or a large portion to themselves.

Lenard Zohn, co-founder of the first Autism Eats chapter in Andover, Massachusetts in 2015,  said he and his wife were interested in creating a welcoming, judgment-free space. Arranging the optimal environment includes adjusting the lighting and the music to accommodate those with sensory difficulties and planned fun activities for the family, he said.

The organization is now active in 10 states and is even receiving inquiries for international  chapters, according to Zohn.

“Everybody in our room is connected to autism in some way,” Zohn, said. “Whether it is an individual [or] an autism family, they are caregivers, and teachers. It ensures that it is judgment-free and allows people to talk and behave in a way that is very comfortable.” 

Zohn said he created the nonprofit after feeling the discomfort of other restaurant patrons because of his son’s actions.

“Restaurant’s don’t typically know how to handle a table,” Zohn said. “You sometimes feel that other diners are looking over at you and you are disturbing their meal. It just becomes a pretty uncomfortable situation.”

Alan Dunn, founder of the site Autism Awareness, a virtual community of parents who face the same challenges he does with his autistic son, said community programs that provide assistance to families are incredibly helpful for parents and the child.

“A lot of families are lacking the social aspect of relationships with other parents,” Dunn said. “A lot of children after school hours don’t have the same social network as typical kids do. A child with special needs doesn’t go to the park and play with ten other kids.”

In addition to providing families with stress-free meals, Dunworth said these events promote autism awareness.

“It may make people more conscious of what they are doing,” Dunworth said. “The fact that we have customized our own situation for comfort [will make] people think twice when they see a child that may be struggling a bit.”