For many diners, the bustle of a busy restaurant is a familiar and reassuring experience: clinking glasses and silverware, a rumble of music from overhead speakers, laughter and animated conversation from patrons seated elbow to elbow. But for others, especially children and adults on the autism spectrum, a meal in a typical dining room can feel frenetic and overwhelming.
In an effort to bridge that chasm, the Kennison, the New American restaurant on the corner of Clark and Lincoln, will close its dining room to the public on Wednesday, December 16 for its third-annual Autism-Friendly Dinner. The gathering is primarily designed for families who have children on the autism spectrum and will feature a pre fixe menu, a designated “quiet space” for anyone in need of a private retreat, and sensory-friendly activities like Play-Doh from local family therapy clinic Blue Bird Day.
“Until we started working on this event, I never thought about going out to eat as something that could be challenging and this is what I do every day,” says Kristen Rezny, general manager at the Kennison. “This [dinner] is our passion project, not a moneymaker. Our goal is to be a restaurant that can provide great hospitality for everyone.”
Families with autistic children cite a wide range of reasons why dining out is a rarity for them, including concerns over unpredictable spaces, distracting auxiliary noises, and social stigma from surrounding diners. Kennison staff learn about these issues in yearly trainings with autism advocacy nonprofit Autism Speaks, and the restaurant provides menu details as well as a storybook for participating families with pictures of the space so everyone can prepare for the event in advance.
Meanwhile, restaurant staff unplug noisy printers, swap out drinking glasses, and take extra pandemic precautions like moving tables six feet apart to help protect those who are immunocompromised.
“People with autism sometimes have a heightened awareness of their senses,” says Autism Speaks field manager Tamara Golden. “It’s mostly about noise — there are noises that [people without autism] can tune out, but some people with autism can find it really difficult to tune that out.”
The team at the Kennison is especially proud to create a judgement-free zone for families who rarely dine in public. Rezny describes how some children and adults on the autism spectrum use swaying as a tool to calm themselves in stressful situations — a reaction that surrounding customers may not understand or mock. The issue is significant enough that Autism Speaks provides an online guide to dining out with tips and resources.
At the Kennison’s annual meal, all of those worries can fall away. “Everyone at this event is a family that understands your family and what you’re going through,” says Rezny. “We can take away stigma that exists so you can relax and just be at dinner.”
Organizers have scheduled this year’s Autism-Friendly Dinner to coincide with a special sensory-friendly visit time at the Lincoln Park Zoo’s annual ZooLights festival. During that time, all blinking or moving lights will remain static or be turned off completely, and music is silenced as well. Though Autism Speaks isn’t directly involved with ZooLights’ move toward inclusivity, Golden says she’s worked with zoo staff in the past and is happy to see their initiative.
“It’s nice because we have a goal of the whole world being autism-friendly some day and they’re doing it on their own,” she says. “It shows that the world is increasing in understanding and acceptance of autism, and that just keeps growing.”
The Kennison’s annual Autism-Friendly Dinner, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, December 15.