Restaurant Night Out

Pictured: (Top from left) Taryn Massey Curty, Leigha Armstrong, Kierra Williams, Jenn Moran, Kathleen Hernandez. (Bottom from left) Bandi Harris, Abby Bates, Amanda Garcia, Amy Gibbs, pediatric OTR at West Texas Rehab Center.

Activities most of us take for granted – such as eating out at a restaurant – can pose a daunting challenge for families dealing with autism.

Students in the ACU Master’s of Science in Occupational Therapy program partnered with a local nonprofit organization, Reach for a Difference, to create an event specifically for those families.

Called Restaurant Night Out, the event allowed families with a child on the autism spectrum to share a meal at a local restaurant in a non-judgmental and sensory friendly atmosphere. It also provided a learning opportunity for other restaurant patrons to learn about autism spectrum disorder (ASD).  

Kathleen Hernandez, a second-year graduate student in the occupational therapy program, conceived the idea after reading about a similar program. She was in the process of completing her fieldwork at the West Texas Rehab Center, working with pediatrics.

‘They’re just kids’

“Working with children with special needs just changed my heart,” Hernandez said. “After being there for 12 weeks, you see that they’re just kids. They’re a part of a family. They want to enjoy things that other kids want.”

Hernandez collaborated with Sara Collins from Reach for a Difference, a local support group for families with autistic children, to brainstorm ideas for a special event. Also involved in the project were Jenn Moran, president of ACU’s Student Occupational Therapy Association (SOTA) chapter; Bandi Harris, SOTA volunteer coordinator; Kari Williams, ACU fieldwork coordinator; Shea Petrey, another MSOT student completing her fieldwork at the West Texas Rehab Center; and her fieldwork educator, Amy Gibbs.

“We decided to provide a night for families to eat out like any typical family would,” Hernandez said. “Going out with a child who’s on the autistism spectrum can be really difficult.”

It was important to make the environment sensory-friendly, because many children on the autism spectrum have difficulty processing sensory information. After calling several restaurants, Hernandez and her team arranged with the managers at Heff’s Burgers on Rebecca Lane to host the event there.

The lights were dimmed and the music was turned off to make the restaurant sensory-friendly.


Knowing what to expect

Knowing what to expect

The team made a “social story,” an illustrated book detailing the order of events, what to expect, and what to do during certain times throughout the meal. The stories were emailed to families attending the event in advance so they could prepare their children for the experience, and physical copies were handed out at the restaurant. Hernandez and Petrey took photos at Heff’s Burgers so the children would know exactly what the space would look like before they arrived. They also made an educational pamphlet to hand out to other guests at the restaurant.

According to the National Autism Association, autism is a bio-neurological developmental disability that generally appears before the age of 3 and affects 1 in 68 children.


During Restaurant Night Out, Hernandez said, families were able to eat in an atmosphere where the children’s behaviors would not be judged. When one child spilled food on the floor, Hernandez said, a student volunteer calmly helped clean it up so the family could continue their meal.

More than 40 individuals connected to Reach for a Difference expressed interest in the event, but only 15 families could fit in the dining room at Heff’s, Hernandez said, so she hopes to offer another opportunity for more families to be involved in the near future. Several other local restaurants have offered to host a future event, she said.

 “This was a pilot to see how it would go, and it just caught on like wildfire,” Hernandez said. “Hopefully the partnership between ACU SOTA and Reach will allow for these types of events to take place more often.”

The Restaurant Night Out fits well with the occupational therapy program’s mission to prepare students to think and act critically, missionally and globally in Christian service and leadership throughout their respective communities, Hernandez said.