Which Restaurants Are Special Needs Friendly for Kids?
What makes a restaurant sensory friendly might not be the same for each person. But if variety is the spice of life, there are some options. I had the opportunity to interview a loving, thoughtful, and articulate mom, Maureen. She and her husband have 2 sets of twins who are elementary school aged. Three of their kids have high functioning autism. They enjoy eating out together as a family.
Q: Why does a sensory friendly restaurant matter to you?
Like many kids on the spectrum, her kids have sensory processing issues. Maureen explains: “Too much noise or visual input can be over stimulating. This isn’t just an aesthetic preference, if there’s a pattern on the plates, her boys will gag. How the food is placed, prepared, the way it looks, and even the plate and placemat matter.”
Q: The stares, the comments … How do those make you feel?
Maureen and her family have heard it all. From, “You better get your child under control,” to the, “harder to confront stares or talking about their family in a voice loud enough to hear … the stares are often the worst.”
“The first reaction is that is just a naughty kid,” said Maureen. Wait staff can get irritated. At one restaurant, the server got completely nasty and told Maureen’s son to, “Look at me, when I’m talking to you.” Maureen explained that her son has autism and making eye contact is very difficult. The server continued and said that the child was disturbing other customers who, “are here trying to eat.”
“Most of us see our own children’s negative behavior magnified anyway, so it makes it worse when there is a lack of awareness.”
Q: How do Maureen and her family handle going out to eat?
“We are always very open about it,” Maureen explained. “Once we explain that our children have sensory issues, usually [the restaurant staff] will be accommodating. We don’t say it as an excuse, we just say this is what’s happening.” If not, they won’t go back to that restaurant.
Q: Let’s talk about social norms.
Maureen approaches this from the perspective of a mom who was also a tenured sociology professor, which she recently gave up because of the lack of services where they lived. She explains that, “Social norms are set. Behaviors and expectations are set up in a certain way.”
At a restaurant this means, “The way tables are set, servers have their script, other patrons … know how you are ‘supposed’ to behave.” “If there’s a deviation, [society responds with] negative sanctions.” “My husband used to get really stressed out, [when we went out].” Now they know they are part of the change.
Q: Do you have hope for more inclusion at restaurants?
She does have hope, “The more people go out, the more society’s norms will change.” Maureen said that I tell people, “so they can modify or reshape their social interaction.”
At one restaurant, there was a TV on and the cartoons were bothering my son, I asked staff to change the channel and they offered to turn it off and did! I told them that our son is on the spectrum.
When Maureen provides this additional insight and information about her kids, the person usually responds with, “so is my brother or cousin.” With so many people on the spectrum now almost everyone knows someone.
Which restaurants do they enjoy going to?
1. Carmine’s in Brooklyn. This is their favorite restaurant, and it is actually loud and noisy which means when their kids are loud they fit right in. In addition to the delicious pizza, they are very patient. They are accommodating and will bring a plain plate or a different cup.
2. Garden Grill Coffee Shop. Unfortunately, this classic Brooklyn diner closed. It had a sign inside that read, “I Love Someone With Autism.” One of their kids was taking a long time to decide what to order, the server was becoming impatient. Then Maureen’s husband pointed out the sign to the server and added, “I think you should be aware of what’s happening here.” Maureen added, “It would be great to have a symbol that welcomes all differences.”
3. Manhattan Three Decker. This Greenpoint, Brooklyn diner is another favorite spot.
4. Bamonte’s. This is a classic Italian restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Maureen said, “We went on a Sunday afternoon with friends who were in from out of town. There were a lot of families and a lot of kids. My one son had a full meltdown and he went under the table. He was overwhelmed with the new people.”
5. Upstate New York. In Gardiner, New York, their go to pizza place is Pasquales Pizza Restaurant.”What makes Pasquale’s a place that Maureen’s family loves? The staff stays patient, they have awareness of our needs, and they are understanding.” We have a pizza place that we love.”
Q: Do you have any other tips?
Maureen said, “If we are having a hard time, my husband will sit with 2 kids at one table and I’ll sit with the other 2 kids at another table.”
Also they might not go on a Friday night – “sometimes a restaurant that is not so good for kids on a hopping weekend night might be great for kids earlier in the day.”
“Even the placemats [can be a] a sensory issue. We turn them over and play tic tac toe.”
Q: Is there a place for fast food restaurants?
Many of us are embarrassed to say we go to fast food restaurants, but maybe there’s something to learn from them. “Going out can be stressful because it’s unpredictable.” Maureen explained. “In an absolute pinch, we will eat fast food but the problem is that it’s often unhealthy. But what makes a fast food restaurant a good choice if it’s not the food? It’s quick, you know exactly what you’ll get, there is very little expectation of quiet behavior, and people do not stay long. They are not looking for a relaxing dining experience. “There is a huge diversity of people who come in and out.” “They are not paying much attention to, and they are not looking for a dining experience.”
Q: What does a sensory friendly restaurant look like? Are these (easily) doable by restaurants?
We can also let restaurants know what makes our and hopefully the restaurant ‘s experience better,” according to Maureen. “Stay patient and understanding. It’s the awareness.” A symbol to be welcoming to children and adults to be very inclusive. And a lot of different plates.” Variety is diverse. It’s inclusive. “I’d also have diversity awareness training for all employees.”
Q: Is there a formula here?
Extra patience, awareness and some plain dishes on hand. “We go to the same places. We know where we’re accepted.” Loyal and regular customers are often the bread and butter of a restaurant’s survival. They are upfront and matter of fact. And if a restaurant is not accommodating, they won’t go back. At the restaurants where they are regulars, they are welcomed.
What some other moms have said.
Julie, mom of a 5 year old said, “We should ask establishments if they want to make a sensory kid night. no music, quick menu…etc…”I think [several] of us talk to the owner if they could have a monthly or bimonthly ‘skid night. I think a lot of restaurants would be interested especially if it was on a Monday or other low volume evening.”
Table 87 has a few Brooklyn locations. Idil likes Table 87 in Brooklyn because they are very good with kids. The staff is tolerant. It’s that good old school way of the owner – she has “kids will be kids and they are darn lovable.”
Habana Outpost This Brooklyn institution has a large outdoor dining space. You pick up your food at a window so there is no need to worry about wait staff who are hurrying around, it’s mostly outdoors and it’s OK to be loud.
Q: If you were going to open a sensory friendly restaurant, what would it look like?
Maureen: “I’d open a bar and grill and include nice dishes, part would be dark and quiet and the other part would be louder. I’d absolutely have staff training so there’s awareness of all different types of issues. And symbols that would be welcoming to children and adults to be very inclusive. And a lot of different plates! The menu would also include healthier options and more variety.”
Q: What would the staff training include?
“Awareness. In sociology we use the term ‘diversity,’ … it’s very broad. Inclusive of all. We all bring different things to the table. So to speak. Breaking down stereotypes is not automatic because it changes our interactions.”
Which are YOUR favorite sensory friendly restaurants?