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.