Sensory friendly dining events breaking down barriers

OT student doing research with child
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Sensory friendly dining events breaking down barriers

For many families, the occasional visit to a restaurant is an enjoyable treat. 

But for parents who care for children with autism, the notion of eating out can be panic inducing. 

“We did not eat out at a restaurant until my daughter was 7 or 8 years old,” says Karl Pierick, whose daughter, Emma, is on the autism spectrum. “It was too overwhelming, too loud and unpredictable.” 

Pull quote from AusderauIn an effort to provide a welcoming dining experience for all and to educate the public about autism, students and faculty at UW–Madison played a leading role in putting together a Sensory Friendly Family Night event on May 20 at a Madison Culver’s restaurant located at 2102 W. Beltline Hwy. 

“Sometimes families who have children with special needs can face barriers to participating in events many of us take for granted,” says Karla Ausderau, an assistant professor with UW–Madison’s occupational therapy program. 

According to the latest research, it’s estimated that 1 in 88 children have an autism spectrum disorder, with anywhere from 46 to 89 percent of those kids displaying feeding challenges that are often linked to atypical sensory responses to one’s surroundings. 

Madison, like many communities, has long been home to events such as sensory friendly movies, in which theaters raise the lights, lower the volume and generally do what they can to make the movie-going experience more enjoyable for those with sensory disorders. 

The idea behind the Culver’s dining event was to create a space where these families could similarly get out of their homes and enjoy themselves at a restaurant, explains Tanis Rusin, the second-year OT master’s student who pitched the notion of a Sensory Friendly Family Night event to Ausderau in the fall of 2012. 

In addition to creating a setting in which those with autism are explicitly welcome, this event also took steps to limit sensory inputs at the restaurant while also educating members of the dining public and Culver’s staff about autism spectrum disorders. 

Ausderau notes that students studying for their master’s degrees in occupational therapy and LEND (Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and related Disabilities) Trainees with the university’s Waisman Center have been the driving force behind this project. 

Dining Art

Pierick, who worked as a family representative with Ausderau’s research team as part of the LEND training program, notes that after years of avoiding eating in restaurants that his family eventually gained the confidence to try eating out at Denny’s. 

“And she did it,” he says “It was a major accomplishment.” 

Pierick then started attending sensory friendly movies with his daughter, adding that “it was so nice as a family to not care if she was making noise, or moving around, and nobody else cared, either.” 

Pierick’s family has since attended movies with a “regular” crowd and also went to the May dining event at Culver’s. 

Ausderau says plans are in the works to continue and expand these events this fall and into the upcoming spring semester. 

“The goal is to not only have an environment in which families with special needs can eat and enjoy themselves, but also a place where the community can come and have dinner together,” says Ausderau.

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