Program creates social situations for families coping with autism

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SALT LAKE CITY — With one in 47 Utah children diagnosed somewhere on the autism spectrum, many Utah families face the challenges of socializing outside their homes and schools.

Amy Baker came up with the idea to create opportunities for those with autism to socialize. It's a program called Autism AWARE-- standing for Autism is Welcomed, Accepted and Respected Every day.

Lunch at Brio Tuscan Grille is normally busy and lively. Those are two words that are not very comfortable for children with autism and their parents. Public places offer multiple challenges.

"Sensory issues, noises, different people, food restrictions," are a few of the challenges Cheryl Smith, president of the Autism Council of Utah, pointed out. "They might act out or yell or throw something, and a lot of people aren't really educated on what's going on."

Requirements for A.W.A.R.E. Recognition
  • Please do not touch! Even a hand shake or assistance with a coat may be too much for some individuals with autism.
  • In the event of a meltdown or tantrum, please do not try to assist or intervene.
  • Offer coloring activity or other sensory stimuli
  • Turn down music.
  • When seating choices are available, ask the caregiver if they have a preference. A table in a quieter section, a table preferred by the individual, or a booth may be better.
  • Try to ensure proper labeling of food ingredients on the menu for families whose loved ones are on a restricted diet due to allergies and behavioral reactions to certain foods.
  • Individuals with autism may have trouble waiting for their service. Please let your staff know that quick, efficient service is a helpful accommodation for these individuals.
  • Those are concerns that Autism AWARE does away with. The staff--hostesses, chefs, and waiters--were all trained ahead of time on what to expect and how to respond. The children got to work their dough into a pizza form and then watched as their lunches baked in a giant oven.

    Baker has two sons with autism, 8-year-old Bryson and 7-year-old Braden.

    "It's about training, and we are so grateful to Brio for doing this. This is a place where I would not regularly take my child. It is a nicer atmosphere and I don't want to cause a commotion," she said.

    Brio's general manager Steve Rose said, "Just a little bit of special attention that they need to make sure that they have a great experience. And what better place than to have them come in and have a little bit of Italian food?"

    Brio's autism acceptance simply means they are indeed welcome there, and parents of autistic children hope it's just the first of many restaurants willing to welcome them in.

    From the children's perspective they had their moms, plus friends, plus lots of pizza in a comfortable new place, adding up to 'we can do this' again and again.

    Other businesses are taking Autism AWARE very seriously, including grocery stores, movie theaters and hair salons. It's a way the community can develop sensitivity and help reduce the stress for families who are meeting many challenges with courage.


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    Carole Mikita


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