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To the Waitress Who Told My Son With Autism to 'Eat All Your Food'

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“Hey, you must eat all your food.”

Those were the words you spoke when you kindly placed our meals on the table. I smiled politely, asked you for a hot chocolate with cream and thanked you for your service. I observed my son’s reaction as he uncomfortably smiled and pushed himself further into his seat, trying to evade your words and looks.

After you left our table, I looked at my son and said to him,“You know she was only being polite when she said you must eat all your food. Do you understand what I mean?” He looked at me with a smile on his face. “Yes, like she was just trying to be nice.”

Before our meals arrived, my son told me he was full. This was after only a few sips of the kid’s size milkshake he excitedly ordered when you seated us.

We ate our meal mostly in silence, content with our worlds. He finished his slice of bacon, quite a feat for him since he usually only eats the cheesy pizza. I enthusiastically applauded him for eating something he usually never eats, and told him I will make a nice sandwich from his leftover toast and scrambled egg. To this he quickly responded, “But Mom, I’m not going to eat it,” anxious at the mere thought of having to finish a sandwich at some point in the day.

I assured him that he didn’t need to eat the sandwich, but that we would take it home, just in case.

My son was constantly checking the time, eager for me to finish my meal so we could leave. I patiently explained to him that I’m not going to be rushed, and that we would leave at 11:15.

At 11:07, you arrived with my hot chocolate and looked at my son’s plate. “Oh my, you haven’t even touched your food. You must eat all your food, don’t waste Mommy’s money.”

You smiled, and I told you, “It’s OK if he doesn’t eat all his food; he has sensory challenges. Please bring me the bill.” But you still looked at him and told him that he should at least finish his milkshake. Then you walked away, oblivious of the now-intrusive nature of your comments.

This time I looked at my son and said, “Did that sound polite?” He shook his head.

I wholeheartedly agreed with his silent answer and told him that your comments were intrusive and inappropriate. You made him feel uncomfortable about his lack of eating. What we initially perceived as politeness had become unprofessional and intrusive conduct. He asked,“Mom, what does intrusive mean?”

This is typical for us; I explain things in life to my son in a way he’ll understand. I explained that intrusive, within this context, is when someone says something and acts in a way that makes us feel uncomfortable. It’s that uneasy feeling we get when someone invades our personal space and comments on our behavior, even though it is none of their business and has no direct impact on their well-being.

My son nodded his head with understanding. I asked him, “Do you think I should educate the waitress about the intrusive nature of her comments?”

He looked at me with his kind eyes and said. “No, it’s OK. I’m sure someone else will.”

However, a few minutes later you came back to clear our table and gave us the bill. I paid and, despite my annoyance with your inappropriate comments, tipped you more than the usual percentage. Still, you did not get the message. Facing me, you cleared my son’s plate and quarter-full milkshake glass, and with no reservations, continued to say to him, “You didn’t even finish your milkshake.” You made him feel uncomfortable! Again!

I wanted to tell you off, but managed to let my cooler  side prevail. I looked at you and said, “I told you that I do not expect him to finish his meal or his milkshake. Your constant comments and questioning him about his eating and drinking, especially after I told you he has sensory challenges, is inappropriate.”

You looked at me blankly – perhaps you have never heard of the term sensory challenges. Nevertheless, you still went on to respond, “At least he drank more of his milkshake.” By now, I was nearing the edge, and politely told you that my son is on the autism spectrum, he eats very little, and this is OK with me and should be of no concern to you.

You smiled dismissively, and said we must enjoy our day. All I could think of was how anxious and uncomfortable you made my son feel at the one place where we can usually just sit and enjoy our meals and each other’s company with no care in the world. We walked out, not having enjoyed our meal.

Today’s bill was far more expensive than I ever expected it to be. You tested my patience and my restraint when you caused my son anxiety in a space that should be child-friendly. Next time, focus on exceptional service without judgment.

Originally published: September 28, 2016
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