Restaurant owner Andrew Iredale could hardly be described as a zealous revolutionary. He certainly doesn’t look like one. But he has introduced a radical shake-up in the way that his eatery welcomes autism-affected families—one in which campaigners hope other restaurateurs will now follow suit.
As the father of Josh, an eight-year-old boy with autism, Andrew knows full well that for parents who have children with learning difficulties, going out for a meal can often turn out to be stressful and embarrassing.
“Going out to a restaurant should be an enjoyable experience,” said Andrew, who runs Seasons Restaurant in downtown Leamington Spa, an English tourist town with a population of 58,000, which is located in Shakespeare’s County of Warwickshire. “And I mean enjoyable for everyone—there should be no exceptions.”
That’s why Andrew, who co-owns the restaurant with his mother, Pamela, has introduced special “quality time” dining for those with learning difficulties so they can appreciate the pleasure of eating out in a safe environment.
“Many families who have children with learning difficulties such as autism are put off from dining out because of the ‘strange looks’ that are given to them by other customers. And it is a fact that some diners are disturbed when they see youngsters having outbursts or simply refusing to sit still.
“There’s no doubt that raising an autistic child is a challenge. It’s not helped when people mistake such behavior as being that of someone who appears just to be very naughty—and it’s not easy for parents to ignore the stares and comments of others when ‘all eyes are on them.’
“Admittedly, most people are more understanding and tolerant if the situation is explained to them, but an uncomfortable feeling can still remain,” said Andrew.
“However, we believe there is no reason why families with learning difficulties should be excluded from such an enjoyable social experience as dining out. That’s why, on the first and third Friday of the month, from 5pm until 7 o-clock, we now provide an ‘early meal option’ for just such families.”
Andrew, whose early career was crafted as a Captain’s Table Waiter (Caronia Grill) on the luxury liner QE2 and in seven years in managerial positions in hotels in London—latterly as Food and Beverage Manager at the London Bridge Hotel—added: “Cinemas and swimming baths already operate special sessions for those with learning difficulties. So why not a restaurant as well?”
Certainly, Andrew’s innovative thinking has been warmly welcomed since he introduced, in June of this year, the special meal-time sessions for families with children with learning difficulties. The meals he creates embrace any special dietary requirements that the children require—though good old-fashioned jelly and ice cream is always a favorite!
He said, “We’ve had a very positive response so far and I would like to say it has been very rewarding to have received so many messages of encouragement and support.”
In fact, the reaction to his venture has been so encouraging that Andrew has already addressed a meeting of the Coventry Action for Autism Group and has been interviewed on two radio stations. And staff from local businesses have donated coloring books, crayons, toys and, activity packs to further enhance the enjoyment of a visit.
Supporting his venture, Liz Dresner, director of registered UK charity Resources for Autism, which provides practical services for both children and adults with autistic conditions, said, “It is wonderful that a restaurant can recognize the need for families with an autistic member to have somewhere they can be together, be welcomed, and relax. I wish Seasons’ luck and hope others follow their lead.”
And Birmingham-based BBC radio presenter Llewela Bailey, whose teenage son Ben has autism, said, “Normal social situations that most people take for granted, such as eating out, is a no-go area for families touched by autism. This in itself can make life with an autistic child seem, at times, a pretty joyless experience.
“I think Andrew has come up with a fantastic and well-thought out idea—if not a godsend to isolated parents. I just wish someone had thought of it when Ben was younger.”
Pupils from Ridgeway School, a community special school situated in nearby Warwick, were among the initial wave of customers to take advantage of Andrew’s “quality time dining experience” for people with autism—a service believed to be the first to be introduced in an English restaurant.
Head teacher Debra Hewitt said, “After their visit, some of the children were able to tell me that they had all had a fantastic time and enjoyed their meals. The class teacher spoke about how very friendly and helpful all of the staff were and how the restaurant was able to accommodate our children’s very individual needs, which allowed them to feel relaxed in this new environment.”
Andrew said, “In the UK, it is believed that around 700,000 people have autism. Sadly, however, it is a condition that is still not understood or appreciated by much of the population.
“That’s why I am particularly delighted to see that, in England, a decision has just been taken to ensure that for the first time, autism will now be part of the core learning for teachers as part of their initial training. Education is everything, so just think how much better school life could be for autism-affected children if their teachers really understood their condition and were properly trained to support their needs.
“Good news indeed — and a positive example of how a people’s campaign, backed by parents, charities and Members of Parliament alike, can bring about positive change.”
Fred Bromwich is a freelance journalist and former magazine editor based in Central England, whose nephew, Josh, was diagnosed with autism.
This article was featured in Issue 53 – Working Toward The Future