My family traveled a lot so hotels and restaurants were just part of our lives. Then my brother, Christos, was born and diagnosed with autism at the age of 2. After the diagnosis, I remember how we packed an entire bag of just his food and cooked it in the hotel room so we could take turns going to the restaurant. He ate soup, pasta or rice every day. As he grew, my parents incorporated more foods into his diet, but during the rare moments we actually went to a restaurant, it had to serve pasta.
Christos didn’t care what was on the menu or what the specials were. He didn’t care if there were 10 different types of pasta or if the fish was fresh out of the Mediterranean. He just wanted pasta and tomato sauce. Not bolognese, not arrabbiata and not tomato and basil. Just plain tomato sauce.
At first, we started taking him to restaurants after he had already eaten. But we had to bribe him with iced tea or chocolate ice cream to sit still while we ate. Sometimes it worked but mostly it didn’t. Then we started making pasta at home and took it with us in a plastic box to the restaurants we went to, along with the sauce and halloumi cheese. We were amused when we would see everyone’s jaws drop at the restaurant after we took out the plastic boxes for the pasta, sauce and cheese, especially when it was an Italian restaurant. I grew up with Christos so that was my reality. That was how children behaved for me. I didn’t really understand why it was so weird to others or why people would stare.
After he was done eating, like any child, he wanted to play and explore his surroundings. He didn’t play like other kids. His playground was his mind. So the kid who ate pasta out of the plastic box would then make “funny noises,” run up and down, flap his hands and rearrange the cutlery on the other tables because he didn’t think they were properly positioned.
I get it. I see why people would stare but that’s my brother. That’s my little brother being happy and showing us how happy he is. The thing that got me the most was when parents grabbed their kids and pulled them away from him. He wasn’t trying to attack anyone or trying to stab people with forks. He was an innocent 10-year-old who played differently. He was so excited by his surroundings that this was the only way he could express himself.
As he grew up, it became easier for him to adjust to restaurants. He has a process that needs to be followed. If it isn’t, then there’s trouble. But not for me. The flapping, moaning, jumping up and down or repeating the same word over and over again is my reality; it’s what 17-year-olds do in my eyes. The trouble was for the other people in the restaurant, because he wasn’t sitting at the table, playing on his phone and ignoring his family. Instead, he was hugging us and asking for our attention and affection; apparently, that’s something worth staring at, pointing at and whispering about.
Yes, there are times when we need to step in because the waiter doesn’t understand that all the Coca-Colas in the fridge need to be facing the same way or when he wants penne but they only have spaghetti. But is that worthy of seclusion?
He slowly learned to try other kinds of sauces. He even eats Parmesan cheese now. He eats other kinds of pasta, not just spaghetti. He even eats pasta with fresh cream and salmon. My brother eats salmon! You have to be an autism family to understand the excitement. We don’t take plastic containers with us anymore, and we don’t have to bribe him to sit still. I don’t want him to conform to the world, I want the world to conform to him. Going out to eat is a big deal; it’s a break from routine for us and for Christos and he enjoys it so much. Why should we worry if he’s standing up just because he’s happy. Is it wrong? We have our own restaurant etiquette and people can stare all they want; maybe they’ll learn something.
Maybe they’ll learn everyone deserves a break. It’s OK for a family to treat themselves to dinner when they can’t find a sitter for their son with autism.
Maybe they’ll learn the family sitting at the table in the corner who brought their own food probably spent the entire day worrying about that hour-long outing.
Maybe they’ll accept that happiness can’t be reined in when you’re happy and it’s OK to express it.
Maybe they’ll understand that a 17-year-old boy who hops and skips isn’t a danger to society.
Maybe they’ll learn to accept others, and when they do, their children will learn to accept ours.
Follow this journey on Just a Boy.