16. Out and About

“Out and About: A Spotlight on Special Needs-Friendly Businesses”

In the day to day of autism life, it is the simple pleasures and tasks that we often have to work the hardest to recreate. Taking an autistic child out in public can involve constant herding, picking them off floors as they scream, and of course, trying not to bother random Joe Public as we attempt to have a life. While we would all like to power through despite strangers’ disapproval, sometimes the behaviors combined with the reactions of others can be so daunting that we end up choosing not to try.

It is a given that if A is having a bad day, we stay home, where it’s easier and more relaxing. But even on a good day, his happy sounds and gestures attract attention, and that’s unlikely to change. This is why we place such a high value on people who ease the path for us.

From time to time, I would like to spotlight business owners and service providers who go out of their way to be special needs friendly. They are the people who help us feel that we have someplace we can go, where we will be welcomed, where the usual behaviors of our child will not be held up for censure. As we practice social skills and coping strategies, it is crucial that we have venues where we can test out whether these techniques are working, while also working to minimize the impact on other people.

Naturally, I begin with Swagath Gourmet, our favorite restaurant since the year 2000, when we first moved to New Jersey. Run by the wonderful Iyengar family, it is mostly South Indian vegetarian fare, cooked to non greasy, just-like-mom’s-cooking perfection. I cannot say enough about this family; they have elevated ‘food as love’ to an art. They made us feel like we had a regular place when we were just the two of us, and didn’t know many people in the area. They gave me jars of lemon pickle when I was pregnant. They have played host to so many of our gatherings. And now, they are the best uncles and aunts to our kids. If my husband and I show up there kid-free on a date night, we are sure to be rebuked, which always makes us laugh.

I asked Mr Sesha Iyengar, one of the owners, to answer some questions about their outlook on special needs families, and he was kind enough to humor me. Below are some of his answers.

According to Mr Sesha, Swagath has been welcoming special needs families as regulars for over ten years. He emphasized that it is not just something that evolved, but a policy that they consciously decided to adopt as restaurateurs. This is something my family can attest to; we stayed away for a long period of time because we hadn’t mastered any community outing skills yet, and when we returned, we were welcomed very warmly, told that they feared we didn’t like their food anymore, and that we must never stay away because of autism behaviors, that it was not a valid reason to retreat, and that they had missed us.

When asked if they have ever received customer complaints about autistic kids making excessive noise or causing disruption, he said they have, especially with regard to children who are unable to stay seated, and whose erratic running made other diners feel anxious and uncomfortable. As an autism parent, I will own that we must all work hard to socialize our kids, and that the comfort of others must remain a high priority. But I was moved by the way Mr Sesha said that they take the time to explain to other customers that Swagath tries to be a haven for special needs families, to give them a place to get out and have some relaxed fun.

The kindness that is shown to A there is evident in every way. They will reserve his favorite table if we call ahead. A once lost his composure because we were part of a large, noisy family party, and had to retreat to the car for the rest of the meal, and Mr Sesha brought food out to A and my husband so that they could eat in the car. Going there is one of the highlights of A’s life.

I asked what Mr Sesha would want the larger community to know about special needs families dining out at Swagath, and he said he hopes that people would not hesitate to be around families like ours, that they would not differentiate, as we are all human, and our feelings should be respected. He never hesitates to advocate for special needs families, and speaks very emphatically in favor of inclusion. All I can say is “Sniffle. Thank you.”

It is always enlightening to hear the opinions of restaurant staff and owners, since they see and hear more than what we as customers may perceive. I asked what, if anything, parents like us can do to improve the Swagath experience. I truly thought he would have some critiques of how we handle our kids, and maybe some tips on what behaviors are difficult for them to explain in a diplomatic way to other patrons. Instead, this is what he said: Feel free to come and unite with us. We are all there for you. Just because of autism, don’t deprive yourself. Life moves on–God bless all.

I don’t even know what I could write that would do justice to such a loving and accepting clan of foodies. They don’t think of themselves as particularly unique because, to them, A is family, and gets a seat at the table of life.

Thank you, Mr Sesha, for answering my questions, and thank you to everyone at Swagath for your loving friendship. Heroes come in many guises, and this is a family of heroes, don’t let them tell you otherwise. I lift my katori of Mysore rasam to them.

Radha.

P.S. Swagath Gourmet is at 1700 Oak Tree Road, in Edison, NJ.

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