I Dream of an Autism Friendly Restaurant

I love eating; even more, I love cooking. And I love the fact that I get to work in the autism field. And I love miniature things. I am also a serial fantasiser – you know, for ever thinking up ‘what if…’ scenarios; the other day I was fantasising about how I could combine some of my special interests – i.e. cooking, autism, and miniatures, and came up with the idea of a new Blog post…

I know that there are plenty of individuals and families for whom eating out is either not an option, or is such an industrial sized planning operation that it hardly seems worth it in the end; plus all the variables that can’t be controlled, such as:

  • the sudden appearance of a baby crying;
  • a plate breaking in the kitchen;
  • bread being offered all piled up in a basket and not set out separately without touching;
  • food being served on a texturally inappropriate surface (were humans ever meant to eat off slate?);
  • the waitress wearing the ‘wrong’ perfume;
  • the two clocks on display showing different times;
  • the electric socket switch being turned on despite there being nothing plugged in;
  • the noise of the air-con being painful;
  • background ‘chatter’ becoming overwhelming;
  • people scraping their chairs on the floor when they get up or sit down;
  • being greeted by an unanswerable question such as ‘so how does tonight find you?’
  • not being able to sit tucked away in the corner;
  • grammatical errors on the ‘specials’ board (what makes the meals on the board so special anyway?);
  • the ketchup in the Heinz bottle clearly not the correct colour for genuine Heinz ketchup;
  • hearing other diners eat their food – and/or seeing other diners eat their food!;
  • …or any number of the plethora of very real issues that lead to having to pay the bill and get out before the meal comes to an end – or even before it has begun.

Rachel Khoo, the fabulous chef, used to run what she describes as the smallest restaurant in Paris – with just two tables it certainly seems justified in that description. So what about going one better? What about a really miniature restaurant of just the one table? All of a sudden, my mind started going wild with excitement. Imagine just how autism friendly this mini restaurant could become? The dining out experience could be adapted in so many ways to suit the customer; all of a sudden maybe, just maybe, many of those families, individuals, or couples who have had restaurant dining denied to them, could be eating out in a safe, secure, friendly, adapted-to-suit environment.

Some of the ways in which the experience might be made autism friendly in my fantasy included:

  • Advance ordering. Having a website with full pictures, descriptions, ingredients, methods of preparation could mean that the diner could order exactly what they want plenty of time in advance.
  • Bespoke meals. Of course it is not possible to have infinite variations, but it should be possible for a half decent chef to have a discussion (online, I would imagine) over the requirements of the individual. Food must be served with each component in a separate dish? No problem. Nothing green on the plate? Of course. Chips all the same length? Certainly. Mayonnaise made with lemon, not vinegar? With pleasure.
  • Timings. If need be, all timings can be set in advance. Arrival time, and time of service are the obvious ones, but there may be other timing issues that can also be worked out – such as traditionally ‘unusual’ times to dine out, for example for folk who may be nocturnal.
  • Ambience. As above, this can all be worked out well in advance. Most people have access to mobile music devices that can be docked – so, bring your own playlist if you like. Set your own volume, eat in silence – it’s all up to you. The lights are all on dimmer switches so have then as bright or as dim as suits you. Candles available for those who are artificial light averse, naturally.
  • Contact with people. Some individuals find that the social component of eating out is enough to put them off. With a single service restaurant all social contact could be avoided if this is the wish of the customer! At the agreed time, simply open the hatch and the food you ordered will be waiting for you. When you’re ready, put your empties back in the hatch which signals to chef that it’s time for the next course – simple! Payment arrangements could even be sorted out so you can leave whenever you want without having to ask someone for the bill.

I have no idea whether this would be financially viable – though I don’t see why it couldn’t be. Of course the aim would be to open up the dining experience to those for whom it is problematic – so goes way beyond the autism community, and may be beneficial to a whole range of people. Just imagine (I did – it was wonderful) a whole chain of such mini eateries, across the country (world, even) – which may help the financial viability. The glorious connotations and wide reaching implications…

In my fantasy it was me running this restaurant – in my outbuilding as it happens…until I remembered that while I do love cooking, I rather love my job too, and it’s full time. So, I thought I would Blog instead – and encourage any entrepreneurs who think this may have viability, to genuinely think about it and perhaps give it a go? Someone, somewhere, might make it a success; how amazing would it then be for everyone who wants to eat out without anxiety, could do so.

What You see Is Not (Always) What You Get

I spent some delightful time recently with a family I have known for years – not in a professional capacity, just chilling out and enjoying coffee and autism chat – my usual pastime. One member of the family has provided plenty of challenges to ‘service providers’ over the years, having been excluded from an autism specialist school who couldn’t cope and subsequently living at home ever since under the excellent watch of his parents. Multiple agencies have tried to work with him without success. Watching his interactions with Mum and Dad really made me think about how easy it would be for an ‘outsider’ – or someone ‘not in the know’ – to completely misinterpret his facial expressions, body language, and voice prosody. This, in turn, made me reflect on the Don Tillman character in the second ‘Rosie’ book series, The Rosie Effect (Simsion, 2015) when he alludes to how ridiculous he finds it that most people presume that not demonstrating emotion equates to lacking in emotional function. This, in conjunction with reading the utterly superb Blog The Highs and Lows of Functionality made me want to write about, and clarify, a few aspects of autism that are sometimes (or often) misunderstood.

What you see is not (always) what you get – in other words, those facial expressions (or lack of) are not necessarily an indication of what an autistic person is (or isn’t) feeling. It’s quite extraordinary how subtle the PNT (predominant neurotype) can be when translating (PNT) facial expression, perhaps because of the PNT skill of contextualising very quickly – perhaps this is where the expression ‘nervous laughter’ comes from; individuals are allowed to laugh ‘nervously’, because those around them understand that the emotional expression is not one of mirth, but actually stems from anxiety. Hang on, then – why isn’t the same concept applied to people with autism? I know plenty of autistic people who laugh, smile, giggle, grin, gurn, or chuckle as expressions of (sometimes extreme) anxiety – but rather than recognising this, their teachers, peers, or professionals indicate that this is ‘inappropriate facial expression’ and promptly suggest some kind of social skills course. What is that all about?

Funnily enough, while at the family’s house, Mum told me of an interesting conversation with a social worker who had visited recently, along the lines of:

SW (on ‘observing’ for half an hour or so): “He’s got very good eye contact with me, hasn’t he!? I wasn’t expecting that…”

Mum: “Er, no, he hasn’t actually noticed you yet, he’s still processing the noise of the door bell, the one we asked you not to press when you got here…He isn’t looking at you, he’s looking straight through you”.


In a similar vein to the above, a lack of emotional expression may have nothing whatsoever to do with emotional feeling – autistic people have feelings (I feel stupid writing that, but do know that to this day some people view autistic folk as ‘unfeeling’) but they may not express those feelings in a way that is easily understood by the PNT. But – that’s ok, surely? Well, it is – and it isn’t. It’s perfectly ok for autistic individuals to have a very different way of expressing emotions – of course it is – but what is not ok is for them to be judged incorrectly as a result. All those children and adults totally unfairly branded as lacking in emotion, being uncaring, unloving, cold…so many false assumptions made – and over a population for whom society has even decided are not brilliant with their facial expressions!

Most of the autistic people I know have incredible depth to their emotional repertoire – and yes, from an external PNT perspective lacking the necessary translating skills, that depth may go unnoticed; but just because it’s unnoticed, does not mean that it isn’t there. I believe that autistic individuals are best at expressing their emotions when they are relaxed – and yet, almost by definition, high levels of emotional feeling will mean the individual is not relaxed – sometimes, quite the opposite. So, is it so hard to understand that in the midst of what might even be emotional overload, with the myriad of internal cognitive functions trying to deal with the emotion, understand it, process it, identify it, name it, respond to it…that the face is the last thing that the brain is telling what to do? And even if the face is contorted into some resemblance of an ‘expression’ it’s likely not to be one that matches PNT expectations?

Of course – not all of this applies to all autistic individuals – or, even, to the same person (people will respond differently in different environments) – but I can bet that there are so many autistic individuals who have been mis-read and subsequently misunderstood, almost always with negative connotations, who would have benefitted from knowledge that their faces are not a conduit to their emotional expression.

What you see is not (always) what you get. It’s time society stopped applying the same rules of communication onto the autistic population for whom those rules don’t even apply. Perhaps, in time, the PNT will learn how to read (autistic) faces, and be less ‘face-blind’…and damaging, erroneous assumptions, will be reduced.