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Making family night fun for all

Gemma McLuckie
October 01, 2014

First-in-the-nation program teaches hospitality management students how to help children on the autism spectrum enjoy time out on the town

Hospitality management majors planned the dinner, the first of its kind in the nation.

A family night out can be fraught with disappointment for children on the autism spectrum. Unfamiliar food makes them anxious. Loud chatter and bright lights overstimulate their senses.  Their parents and siblings are tense, waiting to see how they will react. Servers are uncertain how to respond to a child’s meltdown.

An excursion can be so upsetting, “families don’t ever attempt it again,” said Shawn Henry, executive director of OCALI, a clearinghouse for autism information and training.

Undergraduate hospitality management students in Ohio State’s Department of Human Sciences had the opportunity recently to make such occasions more comfortable. They created the Hospitality Speaks dinner, believed to be the first event of its kind in the nation.

“Our goal was to make the evening fun and comfortable,” said Samantha Bottoms, of Chesapeake, Va., a senior majoring in hospitality management.

It is hoped that the effort will eventually allow all families with autistic children to happily visit restaurants and other venues nationwide.

The idea for the course came from Cheryl Achterberg, dean of the College of Education and Human Ecology, who as she grew up saw how the special needs of a cousin prevented family outings.

“In families with children with behavioral issues, parents are under tremendous stress. That stress can have an impact on both their physical well-being and their family’s emotional health. Having the opportunity to build togetherness through family fun is precious to them,” she explained

The initiative ties into the university’s Health and Wellness discovery theme. It also addresses the nation’s increasing need for research related to all aspects of autism spectrum disorders, she said.

Planning events that anticipate special needs

The course was offered as an independent study during spring semester 2014. Anne Turpin, industry expert and lecturer of hospitality management, and Melissa Johnson, director of Cameron Mitchell Premier Events, instructed six students interested in event planning. The students concentrated on two different types of events. The Big Dish hosted hospitality industry professionals to network while raising funds for the hospitality program. Hospitality Speaks, a dinner, hosted families who rarely have the chance for an entertaining evening together.

The events in some respects required identical planning.  The Hospitality Speaks curriculum, however, focused on understanding the needs of clients with brain disorders that affect behavior. Autism spectrum disorder, for instance, may result in intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination, short attention spans and even sensitive stomachs.

The course and dinner were made possible by a donation from education alumna Sandy Slomin, of Delray Beach, Fla. She founded the Slomin Foundation and the Family Center for Autism and Related Disabilities to support families with autistic children.

After OCALI facilitated two focus groups with parents, the six students “had done basic research about kind of background music to play, what foods are better accepted, what lighting to have and games to play,” Achterberg said.

Human Development and Family Science graduate students also contributed useful information about child development. Kathy Lawton, director of early childhood education for the Nisonger Center at Ohio State, helped designed the activities. Lawton’s students volunteered to manage the games at the dinner.

Making a family night out a national tradition

The “final exam” was held April 21 in cooperation with the course’s third partner, Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, headquartered in Columbus.

In Mitchell’s Ivory Room at Miranova Place, Columbus, youngsters waiting to eat were entertained with small, gentle animals from the Columbus Zoo, a coloring table, photo booth, video game and hula hoops. Noise was softened by curtains separating the activities. A quiet room was set aside so any who felt overwhelmed could recover their equilibrium.

The college students dimmed the lights, set out decorations that could be touched and offered a kid-specific menu of chicken fingers and mac and cheese.  An orientation prepared the Cameron Mitchell Premier Events servers and caterers. They swiftly changed to alternate foods when a child objected to the menu. They were ready to box up dinners if a family needed to finish their meal at home.

Feedback indicated parents were ecstatic. One family said they had never enjoyed a night out with their two special needs members, now teenagers. Some families said it was the first time they were able to make friends.

“Parents were feeling a little apprehensive when they came into the Ivory Room, then they relaxed. We wrapped hospitality around these families. It was a joy,” Johnson said

Beginning June 1, Cameron Mitchell Restaurants and its sister company, Rusty Bucket Restaurant and Tavern, became the first in the nation to offer behavioral accommodations, such as seating families in quieter sections. Managers and event planners, hosts, servers, bartenders, chefs and other employees will be trained on how to respond to such requests and any unexpected situations.

“The college is expanding what hospitality entails,” Achterberg said. “This idea will be incorporated into the entire program curriculum.”


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