By Liz Nolan, Contributing Writer
REGION – Dining out as a family is something most parents do not have to think twice about. It’s not that easy, however, for parents with children with autism. In 2014, 50-year-old Andover resident Lenard Zohn was inspired by his own family’s experience and founded Autism Eats. The goals are to bring the fun back to eating out, build community and increase autism awareness.
Autism Eats is a non-profit, volunteer-run organization, which provides autism-friendly, non-judgmental environments for family dining, socializing and connecting with others who share similar joys and challenges.
“Growing up, love was expressed through food,” said Zohn. “Family dinners and restaurant outings were a big thing. We always expected these traditions to continue when we started our own family.”
Zohn and his wife Delphine’s son Adin, now 16, has autism and eating at a restaurant as a family was challenging.
“Sitting still was difficult for Adin,” he said. “He would flop on the ground, bolt for the door, make outbursts and be disruptive. Any enjoyment we would have had by going out to eat, was outweighed by the stress he created.”
Zohn partners with restaurants and ensures that the staff is educated, and music and lighting are adjusted to accommodate sensory sensitivities. Reservations and payments are made in advance for a buffet-style meal. Details like distributing sensory toys and hiring sensory-friendly entertainment adds to the fun. Families can relax and enjoy.
The feedback from families is heartwarming.
Zohn recalls a young boy coming up to him at an event to tell him that it was “the best night of my life…I see both of my parents smiling tonight and my brother is himself.”
Additional stories include grandparents taking their grandchildren out to dinner without the parents, and mothers and sons dressed up for a date night.
According to Zohn, going out to eat at a restaurant is now Adin’s preferred activity.
Importance of community and acceptance
“I have learned how important community is and how people want to feel accepted and welcomed,” said Zohn. “If Autism Eats can help in some small way with that, I feel we are doing a good job.”
Zohn’s favorite quote is from Dr. Stephen Shore, who has autism and is a renowned advocate, “If you met one person with autism, you met one person with autism.”
“People with autism have interests, things they like, things they don’t like, and a sense of humor,” said Zohn. “Be patient even if they cannot communicate in a typical kind of way. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have something to share or important to say, they are doing it in a different way. Take the time to get to know people who are on the spectrum, you will be richer for doing so.”
The pandemic has impacted coordinating Autism Eats events, but Zohn is ready to reengage. In October, the first casual dining event was held at MOOYAH Burgers, Fries & Shakes in North Billerica. Brunch with Santa at Maggiano’s Little Italy in Boston and Salvatore’s Restaurant in Lawrence were held in December.
Zohn’s goal is to expand the organization to 10 new states in 2022; there are currently chapters in 20 states. He would like to have 10 events scheduled per month in different communities, but for that to happen, a larger volunteer base is needed as well as additional sustainable funding.
View additional information on upcoming events, how to donate, or how to volunteer at www.autismeats.org.