How to take an autistic child to a restaurant

How to take an autistic child to a restaurant

Eating out as a family can be a lot of fun, or it can be a terrible catastrophe if your Aspergers or high-functioning autistic (HFA) son or daughter can’t be accommodated in a way that helps you keep the peace. With a little preparation and these simple tips, you can give your dining experience the greatest chance at success.

You’ll also be able to cut and run when you need to. And always remember, your child doesn’t need to actually eat supper at the restaurant if he’s a picky eater. Is he refuses to eat what he ordered – it’s not worth fighting over. Simply get a “to go” box.

11 comments:

My son once threw a burger in a restaurant. He hit an elderly man in the back of the head. I was so embarrassed! His dad just tried to fix his top bun to be even on the meat. It's a funny story now. We always tease him whenever we have burgers. 😉

My Asperger's nephew had never been to a restaurant because of the same odd behavior. We started by going to Chinese buffet restaurants on slow nights, alerting the staff, and asking for a table far away from anyone. Eventually we worked on "restaurant rules" and he learned to follow the rules. Imagine the surprise when his grandfather joined us one time and saw my 7 year old Asperger's nephew eating with chopsticks!

ours have been out at least 2x a mth.. we do a lot in helping make sure we dont have ie to much sun, ect and it helps. and they know if they are making a fuss we will leave.. after once of doing that they stoped my youngest still has to have a break from the noise if we are there on a busy night so he gets to go for a walk w dad while the rest of us wait for the food.

I have a 12 years old son witn asperger. I role play the restaurant manners,from the moment we enter the restaurant to ordering and waiting. He did very with this approach because he knows what to expect of him. We do it once a month and give feedbacks

I have a 12 years old son with asperger. I rehearse the process of going to the restaurant, waiting and ordering. It went well with my son because he knows what to expect.We give them feedbacks of accomplishmengt.

Very good suggestions. With my son now 17, I've been through it all, including ordering repeated glasses of chocolate milk to keep him calm only to have him vomit all over the booth before the meal came!

As a single, sole support parent, with a child with multiple food allergies, it took me years to realize it just was not worth the stress to do restaurants. Stressing over manners is one thing, but then stressing over the money wasted, arguing over how clean and private the bathrooms are or are not, taking the bus back home when the child is in a full tantrum, and stressing over what is and is not in the food is just too much! A better solution all around: my son has a homemade soy ice cream sundae dessert night or we have friends over for dinner AT OUR HOME where he can eat with his hands, leave the table if he needs to, and eat food I know he likes. I do dinner out with friends now instead and my son has a video game night. Win win all around!

Read our experts’ tips on how to make the best of your dining experience away from home while accommodating the needs of your autistic child.

One of the biggest challenges for families with an autistic child is going out for dinner at a restaurant. Some kids are thrown off by changes in their routine, others can be disturbed by noisy crowds, and some simply do not like to wait. So, many parents choose to forego restaurants, including on their family vacation.

However, experts say that there are strategies that parents of autistic children can employ to making dining out a more enjoyable experience.

Avoiding Long Restaurant Waits

Dr. Nathan Call, director of the Marcus Autism Center’s Behavior Treatment Clinic in Atlanta, Ga. says one of the most difficult situations for some children with autism is understanding delays and having to wait—an extra challenge in a busy restaurant. If you face a long wait, Call suggests breaking the time into smaller chunks that can be more easily managed by your child. For example, you might tell your child you will be waiting for 15 minutes. When that time is up, walk outside for a couple of minutes, then return to the restaurant. Visual cues like setting a timer also help focus the child’s attention away from the wait.

“Just make sure that you have control of the time,” Call says, adding that it is also important to have a good idea of how long a delay you really face. “If the wait takes longer than you expected, you could put yourself in a hole.”

Planning Ahead

Claire Dees, the president of Spectrum, an autism support group near Atlanta, Ga., says she has experienced problems eating out with her 20-year-old autistic son, Blake. “When we travel, we often have pizza delivered, or we get takeout and bring it back to the room.”

But when closer to home, Dees ventures into restaurants more. Good planning is key. Dees says it helps to do research on a new restaurant.

  • Look for restaurants with patios so you can sit outside. “It is typically not as crowded outside and there is a little more space,” says Dees.
  • Make sure a new restaurant can accommodate a diet for autistic children, since many autistic children also have restricted diets (Dees’ son is on a gluten-free diet and needs special foods, so she carries snacks and drinks for him.)
  • Use visual schedules, social stories or simply talks about what the restaurant experience will be like. “It helps to prepare your child for what’s next,” says Dees.
  • If you plan to dine out with an autistic child for a special occasion, Call suggests the family practice going out to eat ahead of time. “Don’t wait until your anniversary dinner or a birthday to eat out and just see how it goes,” he says. “That’s not the time to figure it out.”
  • Set aside some time every couple of weeks to eat out, adds Call. “Then if it doesn’t go well, that’s OK. Go in knowing that you might not get fed today, and keep practicing.”

In-Restaurant Tips

  • Go to the restaurant at 4 p.m., when it’s not as crowded.
  • Visit Mexican or Italian restaurants—“places where they put chips or bread on the table right away,” Call says, so your child is not waiting for food.
  • Give the waiter your credit card up front and tell him you may have to leave quickly.
  • While waiting for a table or for food, distract your child with a toy, music or handheld video games—anything that normally keeps his or her attention occupied.
  • When things do go well, leave on a good note: Head home right away and don’t press your luck by staying too long.

Educating Others on Autism

Eating away from home means more than restaurant dining. Dees advises parents to remind family members and friends about any special dietary issues before you visit. “You need to be considerate when you’re traveling to people’s homes,” she adds.

Dees also suggests being prepared to educate others about autism when dining out or just being away from home in general. “I used to carry those little cards from the Autism Society of America that explains what autism is,” she says. When there is a problem, people get curious or want to help, she continues. “I don’t hesitate to explain to people [that my son is] OK, but sometimes it is easier to hand out a card.”

Call notes that it can be challenging to deal with other people who are not as understanding about autism, and trying to manage their expectations. “If you’re going to visit other people, let them know what to expect,” he adds. “It’s tough to just show up somewhere and expect everything to go great. It’s better to be prepared and to prepare others for what might occur.”

Visit Autism Speaks for information about current research on autism or read about ways to reach out to families living with developmental disabilities on the Atlanta Alliance Development Disabilities Web site.

Laura Hurd uses the phrase "lovingly stretching"—an idea introduced by bestselling author, speaker, and autism advocate, Temple Grandin—to refer to the steps she's taken to get her 8-year-old son, Miles, who has autism, gradually at ease within social settings. He's made significant progress in recent years, though Hurd says it wasn't always easy, especially in restaurants.

"When he was younger, it would help us to sit away from others, like in a quieter area," says Hurd, who is based in Mount Carmel, Tennessee and hosts the Miles Autism Homeschool podcast. "The way we always approached it was that we knew most facilities were clueless about autistic children's needs. If we ever saw there was going to be a problem with his coping in these situations, we made it known to the staff, and people were always very understanding and willing to help in any way they could."

Many families of children with autism can be uncomfortable dining out. Most children with autism have sensory processing difficulties and restaurants are often an overstimulating environment. It can also be challenging waiting too long to be seated, and dealing with unwelcome stares from others. Because of this, many opt for take-out, or skip going to restaurants altogether.

"There are expectations [when it comes to] the way a restaurant runs and what happens along the trajectory of a visit," says Jennifer Carlson, Ph.D, a pediatric psychologist with the division of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago. "There is a lot of waiting. That can be difficult if there's no clarity as to why you're waiting and what you're waiting for. You're often expected to vocally communicate with people. For individuals with autism, who may not be using vocal speech, when the environment becomes stressful, they can turn toward a reliance on 'get me out of here'—fight or flight."

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It raises the question as to what accommodations restaurants can make to relieve some of these stressors. Brazil Express Grill, a casual Brazilian steakhouse in Schaumburg, Illinois, recently made headlines for becoming the first sensory-friendly restaurant in the Chicagoland area.

Co-owner Ana Santos-Vitelo followed the recommendations of her friend and founder of the nonprofit Autism Hero Project, Tamika Lechee Morales, and overhauled the restaurant to make the experience easier for children with autism. "It's about inclusion," she says. "Everyone has the right to eat at a restaurant."

Santos-Vitelo took advantage of the quiet hours during the pandemic to update the menu, build sensory boxes that include earphones, fidget toys, and storybooks she created, which detail the service timeline so kids know what to expect during their visit. Staff are trained to recognize when a child is distressed so they can offer the box to parents. Similarly, parents can ask for the box or request to dine in a small, private room with a large window as an alternative space to take a break.

Other venues across the country have also implemented changes to make the environment more comfortable and inclusive for children with autism. In 2019, for example, New Jersey sports bar Riv's Toms River Hub opened a sensory-friendly dining room filled with bean bags, Legos, and other toys that invite children with autism to feel more at home. On the outskirts of Birmingham in Homewood, Alabama, Farm Bowl & Juice Co. has sensory bags with earmuffs and fidget toys at the ready.

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And Champion Autism Network (CAN), a nonprofit founded in 2012 in Surfside Beach, South Carolina, developed a town-wide solution: Families who have children with autism can present the organization's CAN Card, available with a membership purchase on its website, to any participating business or retailer in the area to discreetly relay their need for specialized service or support. In the restaurant realm, this can include expedited seating and food service. "When Miles was younger, just knowing that that town was going to be supportive if we were to go there took a load off," says Hurd.

The CAN program, which has expanded to other cities across the country, is an admirable template for other communities to follow, but there are other ways restaurants can reduce or prevent distressing triggers.

How to take an autistic child to a restaurant

As parents of autistic children, our lives changed when our child was diagnosed. Before, going out to eat at a sit-down restaurant was a simple process, but now you are overwhelmed with the idea of taking your family out for a meal. You worry that the change of routine and the loud noises may overstimulate your child, or they may grow impatient or refuse to eat. What was once just an occasional pleasure is now riddled with stress and anxiety. However, it doesn’t have to be. There are certain steps you can take to prepare your child to experience eating at restaurants so you can all enjoy a new experience together. Here are our tips for dealing with autism while dining out:

Practice makes perfect

There are certain skills involved in going to a restaurant that you should practice with your child before actually going out. For example, children must learn to order food, wait for it to arrive, sit patiently, and practice good table manners. Before you go out, prepare your child mentally by practicing at home first. Turn a family dinner into a restaurant practice run by creating a menu and walking your child through all the steps of ordering food, waiting quietly at the table, and staying still in their seat. You could practice further by taking your child to a fast food establishment first and rehearse.

Properly prepare

Once you and your child have practiced restaurant skills, you are now ready to prepare for the experience. Choose a restaurant that will offer you speedy service, and choose a time that will not be outrageously busy as to avoid over stimulating your child. Pick a restaurant where you know they serve food your child will eat, and consider picking out your meal from the menu online beforehand to speed up the process. You may consider making a reservation in order to avoid waiting for a table.

Make sure your child knows what the plans are so they can be mentally prepared. Bring along books, toys, or games to entertain your child while waiting for food. You may want to bring snacks along as well, just in case. Be sure to use the restroom at home before leaving for the restaurant in order to avoid the public restroom, particularly if your child is averse to toilets.

At the restaurant

When you arrive at the restaurant, ask for a table that is away from other tables if possible. A booth is a good option to help your child sit still and have greater privacy. When you get to your table, you may want to let your server know your child has special needs. This could help them understand why your child is unresponsive, and may speed up service. Ask for the check as soon as you get your entree to ensure that you won’t have to wait around after you are finished eating.

Sometimes, no matter how well you are prepared, things will go wrong. Make an exit strategy in advance, like having one adult take your child to the car while the other pays for the meal and/or waits for take out boxes.
There is no need to stress yourself out about taking your child to a restaurant. If you try and it doesn’t work out, you do not have to force it; keep practicing restaurant skills, and one day, you will get there.

As with any community trip with a child or young person with autism, going to a restaurant can be an anxious time for all.

To support the child or young person, preparation is key. This should be done before the trip so the individual with autism is aware of the sights, sounds and smells they may encounter and what will be required of them. For example, ordering their food and waiting patiently for it to arrive.

For additional tips on prior preparations

How to take an autistic child to a restaurant

Visual instructions and social narratives can be used to prepare the young person and reduce their anxiety about the outing. The visual instructions can either include symbols or photographs (if possible make the photographs specific to the restaurant you are going to and this will make the outing more predictable).

There are a number of skills involved when visiting a restaurant for example:

  • Expressive and receptive communication when ordering food.
  • Emotional regulation when they may become anxious due to noise of others conversing, background music or equipment in the restaurant.
  • Social skills when engaging with other people.
  • Life skills such as sitting at the table, table manners and going to the bathroom.

These skills can be explored in the classroom and home environment but it is advisable to practice the skills individually before going to a restaurant for the first time.

For example, having visitors in the home environment will provide an opportunity to practice sitting patiently and eating at the table. Using role plays for ordering food in the classroom will make the routine more predictable as the individual will be more aware of the questions they may be asked and how to respond. Using a visual schedule will ensure that the individual will understand what will happen during the visit. You may also wish to use a reward chart whereby they can work towards a personally selected reward during the visit if they are able to complete all the required steps.

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The thing about parenting an autistic child is that it’s easy to forget how unique your universe is. At home, the endless rules and rituals dictated by my 13-year-old son Nate’s disability feel natural. Not easy, but natural.

But when our family goes out for dinner, all hell can, and often does, break loose. Though Nate has made enormous strides since he started attending The Boston Higashi School, eating out is a break in routine, and if something unexpected happens, the experience can be pretty unappetizing. This past April, I took Nate and my son Joey, 8, to a local kid-friendly place. I ordered Nate’s burger (he always wants the same thing when we eat out) as soon as we sat down—and then came the inevitable curveball. The burger arrived almost raw. I sent it back to be cooked more, but all Nate processed was that one second his burger was there and the next someone had taken it away. He jumped up angrily from his chair, followed the waiter into the kitchen and grabbed his plate back. At other restaurants, Nate has licked buffet utensils and thrown tantrums when the wait for a table is too long.

It was with families like mine in mind that Alexandra Abend set out to organize Autism Family Night in restaurants. Alex, 16, has an 8-year-old autistic brother. “We were at some little restaurant,” she recalls, “when my brother started completely freaking out, pulling his hair, trying to bang his head on the table, pulling my dad’s hair, biting. I overheard this man behind us say, ‘Why can’t they be better parents?'”

While attending Take The Lead, a leadership program for female teens at Mount Holyoke College, Alex was asked to create a program based on something she felt strongly about. “I asked my mom what she would want, and she said, ‘Maybe a restaurant, an amusement park, a trip where people aren’t going to be looking at us thinking, ‘Why can’t you control your child?'”

Alex approached T.G.I. Friday’s, which has a family-friendly reputation, with her proposal, and hoped that perhaps a few restaurants in her native New Jersey would consider it. When 35 T.G.I. Friday’s signed on, Alex was floored. Says Bill Brayer, a vice president of operations for T.G.I. Friday’s, “When Alex first contacted me I thought it was a great idea and unique for a 16-year-old girl to put something like this together. Our Long Island area restaurants have supported autism in the past pretty heavily so this was a great opportunity to extend what we’ve already done and to support someone like Alex.”

Alex e-mailed the restaurant managers so they could prepare the staff for what to expect. “I came up with a list that said what autism is, what might happen and how to handle it. You can’t keep the noise down in a restaurant but maybe not play the music so loud, be patient and if a child is having an episode get the parents the check as quick as possible.”

The night of the event on April 17, Alex and her family attended a T.G.I. Friday’s near her hometown of Warren. Some of the restaurants reported higher than usual attendance for a Tuesday night. One mother of a 17-year-old autistic boy came up to thank Alex and then burst into tears telling her how wonderful it was to be able to go out to a restaurant with her son and not have people make comments. She told Alex she would never forget that evening.

After the event Alex received even more e-mails thanking her. But what she remembers most from that night is this: “My brother was facing the entire restaurant, he flipped out, he had one of his episodes. My dad had to carry him out and calm him down. It was kind of like what happened the other time, except no one was really looking at him and saying, ‘What’s wrong with your child? Why is he acting like that?’ Instead, people asked, ‘Are you okay? Do you need anything?'”

A video, which claims to show a mom being confronted over her kids’ allegedly bad behavior, is circulating on TikTok and leaving viewers enraged. Since it was uploaded four days ago, the clip, found here, has been viewed 2.2 million times, generating over 73,000 likes.

According to TikToker @bamskye2426’s viral clip—and her several follow-up videos—she was eating at a restaurant with her kids at the time of the incident, along with her friend and their child. A woman then approached the group and started “having a meltdown over [the] kids talking and laughing.” In her video, the TikToker makes a point of noting that her best friend’s child, who was present at the meal, has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Approximately one out of every 160 children worldwide is identified as having ASD, representing a wide range of expressions and experiences. However, despite it being a relatively widespread diagnosis, “people with autism are often subject to stigma, discrimination and human rights violations.”

The clip begins mid-conflict, with @bamskye2426 explaining to the woman that they have “an autistic child at [their] table.”

“I understand that,” replied the woman. However, she soon adds: “This is not the place.”

“Take them to Chuck E. Cheese,” she said.

In the video’s onscreen captions, the TikToker noted that the kids “[weren’t] yelling” and “didn’t leave the table.”

After the incident, the woman reportedly “went on to demand and get free food.”

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A follow-up video claimed to show the behavior that allegedly sparked the woman’s meltdown. In the clip, two children are shown merely laughing and playing with one another.

Thousands of supportive viewers have commented on @bamskye2426’s videos.

“This has always bothered me,” wrote @GingerDD in a popular comment. “Don’t go to a family restaurant if you don’t want noise.”

Some called the woman “ableist” and “bigoted,” and others pointed out that the restaurant they were dining at was clearly a casual, family-friendly establishment.

Several parents and relatives of children with ASD also spoke up in the comments section, expressing dismay at the woman’s actions. “If she had said that to me about my ASD son she would have caught these hands,” wrote @user3810673334654.

Many more pointed out that, ironically, the woman was causing far more “racket and chaos” via her confrontation than the children were.

That being said, a handful of commenters did appear to take the woman’s side. One viewer, for example, called the video “intentionally misleading.” Another suspected that there was “something. more happening” to make the woman so upset.

Newsweek was unable to reach @bamskye2426 for additional comment.

Eligibility: Any parent/legal guardian/foster parent who is primary caregiver for a person on the autism spectrum anywhere in Oregon or SW Washington is eligible.

To ensure all families are given a chance to participate, we ask that each family wait for a year after enjoying “Take a Break on ASO” before applying again.

To Participate: Please contact the ASO office by phone at (503) 636-1676 or toll-free at: 1-888-AUTISM-1 (288-4761), or CLICK HERE TO EMAIL ASO from our Contact Page. Please be sure to check your “JUNK” or “SPAM” folder for responses.

Due to the generosity of our donors, there is NO waitlist and NO lottery.

Parents are responsible for arranging for the respite care, but we’ll try to help find providers if needed. Family members are welcome to provide respite care, so long as they are over the age of 18.

ASO will pay the respite care provider directly. We will send you a form to give to your care provider to fill out and return to ASO for payment after services are provided.

We depend on our generous sponsors to make this program possible. If you would like to contribute to “Take A Break on ASO” or donate gift certificates, please contact ASO at (503) 636-1676 , or toll-free 1-888-AUTISM-1 (288-4761), or CLICK HERE TO EMAIL ASO from our Contact Page .
A special thank you to our GENEROUS SPONSORS who make this program possible.

“This time away gave us an opportunity to reconnect with each other and have a real uninterrupted conversation. I can’t stress to you enough how important this is to our relationship and to recharge our batteries. Families with children on the Autism Spectrum are so exhausted and we all need a good break to keep up.”

Kathy & Steve, Lane County

“These kinds of breaks really do mean a lot to me and my husband. We have had a lot on our plate the last 20 years but are in it together for the long haul. These special gifts of respite are very valuable. Thank you for all you do!”

Tammie, Yamhill County

“Thank you so much for all you do. I am a single parent doing this all alone. As you probably figured, this was a nice treat to have. Again, I just want to say thank you all! It’s a big help knowing that others do care and understand. So again thank you, and I hope that the good karma comes back around to you all.”

Jeramy, Deschutes County

“My husband and I want to thank you for providing us with a wonderful afternoon outing. I had the best hamburger I’ve ever had in my entire life! Then, we went to a movie where we enjoyed a comedy. I cannot tell you the last time we had the opportunity to go somewhere, just the two of us, to relax and laugh. We really needed this break.”

Nancy, Washington County

“Thanks so much to ASO for the Take A Break program! My wife and I had a terrific time, enjoying a wonderful meal in a restaurant that normally would have been off-limits to us as our two autistic children would not have been able to handle the sensory input. With all of the extra costs of raising special needs children, this was much appreciated gift.”

Dale, Clackamas County

“Caring for two autistic children has been quite a challenge for us. It’s nice to know that there is an organization that understands and cares about not only the autistic child, but also the caregivers for those children. We can’t say enough positive things about our experience with ‘Take a Break on ASO!’”

Damon & Susan, Multnomah County

Chef Jamie Daskalis is a graduate from the Culinary Institute of America with a degree for Baking & Pastry. She has worked in the restaurant business for 20 years. Growing up her father had four restaurant locations in New York. It was in those restaurants that her love of the food started. After graduation, she started working at her fathers smallest restaurant called Coney Island, located in Middletown NY. As business grew and things were going well, a new opportunity arose in Myrtle Beach and she grabbed it. Here she found an amazing sense of community. She wants to be involved and give back to the people that support us on a daily basis. Myrtle Beach has taught her, that when you give, you get back. Jamie will tell anyone willing to listen, that this community is amazing and she is proud to be such a big part of it. Recently, Chef was awarded “Best Chef” from South Carolina Woman Magazine and Grand Strand Magazine and is super excited for the release of her first cookbook this year entitled “Making It Delicious.”

When Chef Jamie decided it was time to move south to open Johnny Ds in Myrtle Beach, she was trying to close the book on her life in NY and getting ready for her new adventure. Creating the menu here at Johnny Ds was a job in itself. Every recipe needed to be tested and retested. Food costing, plate presentation, menu design, photographs and product testing was done to ensure the best possible dishes for the restaurant. Jamie works everyday to ensure that her customers get the best possible experience. She is always wanting to learn new things and feels like she still has so much more to learn, so she can be the best Chef and Restauranteur she can be. She is always spending time looking to improve or to revamp a recipe. Her dedication to creating new recipes to entice your palette shows in some of her new dishes like the Brisket Skillet, the Steak & Onion Benedict and the Pork Belly Tacos. She knows that when you think you know it all and are the best, you can not improve yourself and she says, the best is yet to come.

Jamie also spends time engaging with the community via social media because it is not just about food and service. It is about getting to know your guests. The best part of her day involves hanging out in the dining room, learning about her guests experience and listening to their feedback.

On top of all of this, Jamie is a strong advocate for Autism Awareness. Her son James was diagnosed at age 3 with Autism and since then she has made it a top priority to do whatever she can to help him and other children like him anyway that she can. From hosting Sensory Friendly events here at Johnny D’s to creating an Autism Awareness Campaign every April, where she features a child or adult with Autism everyday, that reaches thousands of people to help spread understanding of Autism and how it affects families. Money collected and raised during these events are donated to two local organizations, Champion Autism Network and SOS Health Care. Champion Autism Network works to help make the Grand Strand an Autism Friendly Travel and Living destination, hosting Sensory Friendly Events and bringing awareness and understanding of the struggles and beauty of Autism. While SOS Health Care provides many services, including ABA Therapy, Social programs and their Autism Community Education Program. Her commitment to her son and the cause has truly made a difference and she says it has made her a better person. James has taught her to not be so quick to judge another, to look at the beauty within a person, that a little love and understanding can go a long way.

Chef is excited for her future here in Myrtle Beach with her family and thanks you for joining her to share her passion for food and life. Please feel free to find her on any of her social media outlets and stay connected. She thanks you so much!

How to take an autistic child to a restaurant

The scene at Fireside restaurant in Ravenswood is pleasant and peaceful, with children playing, conversation humming and the smell of bacon rising from the buffet table. But make no mistake, this is no ordinary weekend brunch. A 12-year-old boy communicates his desire for more bacon with grunts. A 5-year-old tries to eat a green crayon and squeals indignantly when he is thwarted.

A tall, well-dressed teenager walks up behind his grandmother while she is talking and very gently presses his nose against the back of her right arm.

He breathes in deeply several times, strokes her arm tenderly, and then wordlessly moves on to her other arm, where he does the same thing again.

“Grandma love,” his grandmother says, beaming.

At Chicago’s second Autism Eats event, many of the young guests have what is now called autism spectrum disorder; a developmental disability that affects communication, social interaction and behavior. Eating out can be a hassle, with kids flapping their arms, chattering nonsense words, throwing tantrums when they have to wait for their food or just getting up to wander around immediately after eating. People stare; the kids get frustrated; parents and siblings blush.

Autism Eats, created by Boston parents Delphine and Lenard Zohn in 2015, provides a creative solution: Parents rent out private rooms in supportive restaurants and eat buffet-style meals, which cut down on waiting and the attendant frustration. Autism Eats has since spread to 11 states; Chicago’s first event was in March.

“It’s relaxed. You can sit anywhere. No one judges,” said Chicago participant Vania Marrero, who enjoyed the most recent event with her daughter Makayla, 4, who has mild autism and a fascination with dinosaurs, her son Jaylen Rivera, 12, who is autistic and nonverbal, and her son Edgar Rivera, 17, who does not have autism.

“We’re in a comfortable place here. I tell my husband, ‘I feel like we’re all one family,'” Marrero said.

More than 70 people attended the first Chicago event; the second was smaller by design with about 30 people. Chicago organizer Shannon Dunworth hopes that 120 people will show up for the third event in June.

Dunworth’s husband, David, learned about Autism Eats on social media. He told Shannon, and they were immediately drawn to the concept. David’s 14-year-old son, Aidan, who is autistic and nonverbal, doesn’t like waiting when he goes out to eat, and sometimes, in order to relax, he makes loud chattering sounds.

That isn’t such a big issue now: “You get to the point when you have an older kid with autism, where you don’t really care what people think anymore,” Shannon says. David takes Aidan everywhere, and if there’s an issue, he handles it. But Shannon thought Autism Eats would be a great help to newer parents, who are often still adjusting to public reactions.

At Fireside, a smiling mother quickly becomes emotional when the conversation turns to “all the explaining.” When your kid doesn’t respond to a new friend who wants to play in the sandbox, or withdraws from another young child’s embrace, or doesn’t accept the “gift” of a dandelion, you have to explain, parents say. When your kid makes unusual sounds or gestures, you explain. When your kid is scared of the slide, you explain.

At the end of the day, you’re wiped out by all the explaining, the mother says, her eyes filling with tears: “It gets exhausting.”

While parents bond, children and teens roam the wooden walkways at the perimeter of the room, an enclosed patio with high ceilings and red brick walls.

There is some grunting and squealing, but no one is really loud, and no one runs particularly fast. The overall impression is not of chaos, but of movement. These kids like to move.

Jaylen Rivera walks at a moderate pace, an iPad in hand, occasionally making a sound such as “Ahh!” or “Mmm!” or smiling at a family member. When he wants more food, he goes over to the buffet and points: “Eh!” His older brother Edgar helps him with the mac and cheese. “Eh!” Jaylen says, and Edgar gets him bacon as well.

“Me and Jaylen, we share a bedroom so we’re together 24/7,” Edgar says, smiling. At this point, he says, he understands his brother’s communication pretty effortlessly.

Jalen Allen, 14, of Maywood, sits quietly as his mother, Candace Bell, chats with me. Then, quite suddenly, his face lights up behind his heavy glasses. “You gonna put me on the front page?” Not on the front page, maybe, but certainly in the newspaper, I tell him. Jalen introduces himself: He’s an artist, an actor, an entrepreneur and a skydiver.

He and his mom chuckle when I ask, “Really, a skydiver?” It turns out he has been to one of those indoor skydiving centers that offer simulated experiences. Articulate and quick-witted, Jalen launches into a series of questions, some patterned on the questions I asked his mom (“How old are you?”), others more creative: “If you had a million dollars — no, a billion dollars — what would you do with it?”

His mom says they’re still adjusting to a recent diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, a milder form of autism associated with intense interests and social challenges.

Some of the most active participants at the event are the Dunworths: Aidan isn’t much of a brunch person and isn’t attending, but Shannon acts as hostess and David dresses up in a Batman costume — a big hit with the younger kids, who stop, stare and hesitate, then generally respond to David’s request for a high-five.

Aidan’s 11-year-old brother, Shane, who does not have autism, is here too: helping out, chatting and just observing the spectacle.

“It’s a really good experience seeing so many families like mine interacting in a restaurant without being scared and being told to quiet down,” he says as the event is winding down.