Monday, December 9, 2019

A restaurant opens a sensory-friendly dining room

Beanbag chairs, bubble machines, sensory games on the walls, dim lighting: Sounds like a haven at a school for children with special needs, right? Nope. It's a sensory-friendly dining room that opened last week at the Riv's Tom River Hub restaurant in New Jersey. If you have a child with sensory issues, you know just how breakthrough this is.

The idea was inspired, as these ideas often are, by the parent of a child with autism. As Tony Rivoli was in the early stages of building his bar and restaurant, Monica Hmielewski—his daughter and co-proprietor—came by with her six-year-old, Chase, who has autism. He wandered into a small room for private parties, and she noted how calm he was in the dark, quiet, cozy setting. Boom.

The 45-seat-room, dubbed "Chase's Friends Zone," has a private entrance and exit. The menu includes gluten-free options. All servers were sensory certified by KultureCity, a nonprofit that specializes in inclusion for people with autism. The restaurant plans to hire people on the spectrum, and to set up a fund to benefit individuals with autism funded by 20 percent of proceeds from the dining room. There will be special events there as well, including bingo nights, paint parties and appearances from music therapist Jammin Jenn, who's worked with my Max and is pure awesome.

"It's hard sometimes going out to eat and doing things that typical families are able to do without even thinking about it," Monica told NJ Advance Media.  Ohhhhh, yes. When Max was little, he'd run screeching out of restaurants because the crowds and din overwhelmed him. Going out to eat wasn't fun for any of us. Eventually, an iPad and headphones helped. As he matured, his sensory challenges subsided.

While restaurants have certainly accommodated our requests over the years to be seated in a quiet area, ideally in a corner (which is most comforting to Max), I've never been to one that offers sensory-friendly anything, let alone a dedicated dining area. How amazing it would be if more restaurants set up sensory play areas or made it clear, on signs at the restaurant or messages on their website, that they're happy to do what they can to make a place more welcoming to children with sensory needs. More restaurants could certainly offer up comfort items, as a couple of California restaurants do through the nonprofit Anova;  their Sensory Friendly Kits included noise reduction headphones, a weighted lap pad and sensory-friendly toys.

Even just a bowlful of ear plugs at the hostess section, right next to the mints, would be welcome—and send a much-needed message. Yes, children with autism and sensory needs, you are welcome here.

Photo: screenshot/NBC 10 video

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