EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 24, 2014

Parents of autistic children launch dinner club

By Judy Wakefield

---- — ANDOVER — Raising a child with autism comes with a host of challenges along with the joys — and going out to dinner can prove one of them.

Behaviors can be unpredictable, with children sometimes having trouble sitting still, talking too loud or even sampling food from a plate at another table, parents say. Other diners may be disturbed and the restaurant staff may not know the best way to service the table — sometimes leaving parents self-conscious and wondering if the trip to the restaurant was even worth it.

“We can feel isolated,” said Lenard Zohn of Andover, who has an 8-year-old autistic daughter. “It can be very isolating for any of us and I’ve heard that from many parents.”

So, Zohn has banded together with some other local parents who have autistic children and formed a family dinner club called Autism Eats.

The group will host its first night out tomorrow, Feb. 25. The inaugural dinner is planned from 6 to 8:30 p.m. in the Rose Room at Andolini’s Restaurant, 19 Essex St., Andover.

The hope of Autism Eats is to help reduce the stress and increase the enjoyment of going out to dinner for families affected by autism, Zohn said.

He said the group will seek to create relaxed, non-judgmental environments for families to socialize and connect with others who share similar experiences. That connection, Zohn said, can mean a lot to families like his.

Zohn’s goal is to host a family dinner out every six weeks or so. They will be held in private rooms of restaurants or function facilities. Food will be served buffet or family style so there is no waiting. In addition, music and lighting will be adjusted to accommodate those with sensory sensitivity. And gluten-free options will be available to cater to all dietary needs.

Because everyone attending has a loved one on the autism spectrum, Zohn said there will be no need for parents to apologize, explain or feel uncomfortable.

“We hope to branch out to families all over,” he said. “We want our families to be like other families.”

To help with the inaugural event, Zohn has gone to Andover High School and solicited the aid of students to volunteer for the evening.

“It’s going to be a great time for families,” he said.

Tomorrow night’s Autism Eats at Andolini’s will feature an Italian buffet including crunchy and spicy chick peas, fresh green garden salad, chicken fingers, fresh-cut french fries, penne bolognese, fusilli primavera, gourmet margherita and pepperoni pizza, bread, dessert and drinks. Prices are $25 for adults and $15 for children. For reservations or more information, visit www.AutismEats.org.