The others: Restaurants are a luxury, they’re fun. You get to dress up, you get to choose what cuisine you want for dinner, hell if you’re feeling adventurous you try something new every time, you get to escape real life and make completely selfish and self-satisfying choices. The end.
Us: Restaurants inspire fear. The judgement, the strangers, all the different food, the ingredients, the smell, taste, the texture, the noise, the music, the waiter, the table, the seat, the stimuli = stress.
Keeping in mind that many families that live with Autism don’t even think of going to restaurant because it is utter madness, i’ll use our experience as one of millions of different examples; no two people on the spectrum are the same.
We traveled a lot, so hotels, restaurants were a regular thing before Christos. I mentioned in an earlier post how we packed an entire bag of only the food he eats and cooked it in the hotel room so that we could take turns going to the restaurant. Soup, pasta or rice; everyday. As he grew up my parents incorporated more into his diet but when we (rarely) decided to go to restaurants it had to serve pasta.
Christos doesn’t care what’s on the menu, or what the specials are. He doesn’t care if there are ten different types of pasta or if the fish is fresh out of the Mediterranean; he wants pasta and tomato sauce. Not bolognese, not arrabbiata, not tomato and basil just plain tomato sauce – Perera style.
At first we started taking him to restaurants after he had already eaten, and bribe him with crisps, iced tea or chocolate ice cream to sit still while we ate; sometimes it worked, mostly it didn’t. Then we started making pasta at home and taking it with us, along with the sauce and the halloumi. It was fun, seeing everyone’s jaw drop when we sat down and took out the plastic box, another one for sauce and another one for cheese; especially when we went to Italian restaurants. I didn’t really understand why it was so weird, or why people would stare, but they did.
After he was done eating, like any child, he wanted to play, he wanted to explore his surroundings. He doesn’t play like other kids, his playground is his mind, his imagination. So, that kid that ate pasta out of the plastic box would then make (funny) noises, he would run up and down flapping his hands and trying to rearrange the rest of the tables because the cutlery wasn’t properly positioned.. and people would stare more. The thing that got me the most is when parents grabbed their kids and pulled them away from him. He wasn’t trying to attack anyone, he wasn’t trying to stab people with forks, he was an innocent 10-year old who played differently, who was so excited by his surroundings that it was the only way he could express himself.
As he grew up it became easier for him to adjust to restaurants. He has a process and it needs to be followed, if it isn’t then there’s trouble. Not for us anyway, because the flapping, moaning, jumping up and down or repeating the same word over and over again is our reality; its what 16 year olds do in our eyes. The trouble was for the rest, because he isn’t sitting at the table playing on his phone ignoring his family, instead he is hugging us and asking for our attention and affection; apparently that’s something worth staring at, it’s something worth whispering about and pointing at. I mean, yes, there are times when we need to step in because the waiter doesn’t understand that the all the Coca Colas in the fridge need to be facing the same way, or when he wants penne but they only have spaghetti, or when he’s calling over the waiter to touch his hand because it accidentally brushed against his jumper but is that worth seclusion?
He slowly learned to try other kinds of sauces, he eats Parmesan now. He eats other kinds of pasta except spaghetti. He even eats pasta with fresh cream and ham. We don’t take plastic containers with us anymore, we don’t have to bribe him to sit still, because we don’t want him to conform to the world, we want the world to conform to him. For him, like us, it is an event to go out to eat and he enjoys it so much. Why should we worry if he’s standing up just because he’s happy. Is it wrong? We have our own restaurant etiquette and people can stare all they want; maybe they’ll learn something.
Maybe they’ll learn that everyone deserves a break, that one night a week where they decide to treat themselves but can’t find a sitter for their autistic son. Maybe they’ll learn that everyone has their own struggles and that family you see that sits at the table in the corner and brings their own food probably spent the entire day worrying about that hour long outing. Maybe they’ll accept that not every child expresses happiness in the same way. Maybe they’ll understand that a 16 year old boy who hops and skips isn’t a danger to society. Maybe they’ll learn to accept others and when they do, their children will learn to accept ours.
Don’t spend the rest of your life eating the same boring plate of pasta; learn and educate yourselves about Autism, accept uniqueness and embrace individuality. Autism isn’t a danger to you, but being narrow-minded is.