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To the Waitress at Steak ’n Shake Who Listened to My Son With Autism

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Dear Waitress at the Frankfort (Kentucky) Steak ‘n Shake Who Served Us Saturday Night:

As a waitress in a 24-hour sit-down fast-food restaurant, I’m sure you get a lot of odd requests — especially from harried parents dealing with children in a visually stimulating (black-and-white checkered decor), cold, audibly loud environment. But I have to tell you, you handled our table with grace and calmness that belied the busy dining room.

When we ordered a hotdog for our autistic 9-year-old son, Scott, and explained the mustard must be made in a squiggly line on top of the hotdog — much like one would see on any picture of any hotdog in any children’s book — you didn’t even bat an eye. You had no idea if he’d received a hotdog without mustard or with the mustard not in a squiggling line in such a loud, cold, visually stimulating environment, it would’ve likely caused a meltdown for which there may have been no immediate recovery. You just nodded, smiled, said you understood, and brought us a perfect hotdog. You made sure the milkshake had a cherry and brought him a salad as a side to his kids’ meal, even though that isn’t the norm.

You were a fantastic waitress and we had a meal with no issues. As the mother of a child diagnosed with “autism spectrum disorder manifested by issues in reading and auditory comprehension,  issues in interpersonal relationships, and issues in sensory processing with an above average raw intelligence,” I can assure you — many meals out aren’t handled so smoothly, and many waitresses and waiters truly don’t have any desire to cater to the odd requests of one small family.

When we encounter wait staff like you, we always make sure the tip is padded. I hope you were blessed by that.

We had to eat and run in a hurry. We had a meeting an hour away and only had 45 minutes to get there. We left and were halfway to our meeting when Scott realized he’d left his “Joy” toy on the table.

You have no way of knowing this, but the things that are special to Scott are obsessively special to him. I don’t use the term obsessively lightly.

The author's son, a young boy, holding toys.

Joy is the emotion “joy” from the recent movie, “Inside Out.” We watch the previews about 43,000 times a day. His wish list for his birthday this Friday is the entire set of action figure emotions from the movie. Right now, he only owns Joy and she goes everywhere with him  from bed to bath to table to bike, she’s in his hand or pocket.

There was no meltdown when he realized he’d left Joy. There was more like an “off” button. His entire body deflated, his face completely fell, and he had no emotion whatsoever. We told him we’d stop and purchase a new one. He emotionlessly said he didn’t want another one.

When we left the meeting at nearly 9 that night, we called your restaurant. The woman who answered the phone told us they’d found Joy and had kept her for us. The hour-long drive to your restaurant was probably the longest drive in Scott’s life.

When we took Scott into the restaurant to get Joy, we found out she was given a tour of the kitchen and rode in the pockets of many staff members so she could get as many experiences as possible before we returned to pick her up. When you came to talk to us, you said you had a feeling she was important to Scott, and you knew we’d come back for her.

I can’t come up with words to express my gratitude for the gentle care you gave our son and his lost toy Saturday night. It would’ve been easy to ignore the request for mustard, a salad and a cherry, and just to toss the piece of plastic in the garbage when the table was bussed. But you listened, you heard and you loved him even though you didn’t know him.

I don’t know if you have any idea of the obstacles he’s going to face in his lifetime. We don’t even know. We’re spending his childhood trying to prepare him and teach him coping skills for surviving and thriving in this dark and fallen world. When we receive little bits of light from people like you, it gives us hope for what the future holds.

Thank you for the joy you gave us.

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Originally published: July 14, 2015
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