Editor’s note: OpenTable is proud to share this story as a part of highlighting underrepresented voices in the restaurant industry. Here, writer Danny Whitty shares his experience dining out as an autistic person.
When the server noticed me compulsively grabbing and distributing the pile of napkins she had just set down on our table, she glanced at me and kindly smiled. And I felt immediately at ease. My reflex had been to anticipate annoyance or, at best, judgmental confusion. But her reaction was so subtle yet significant. I felt seen and gently accepted.
Going out in public as a minimally speaking autistic person has always been fraught with anxiety. Will I be able to hold it all together, or will something trigger an uncontrollable meltdown? Will my body insist on being way too loud or boisterous or even gassy (to my intense embarrassment)? Will I be stared at with hostility or bafflement or mocking malice?
This restaurant, Kindred in San Diego, had been on my list of places to try for a while. I was taking a good friend out for his birthday; treating friends to meals out is one of my favorite ways to show my care for them. And I’m always eager to go out on the town — I love the energy of lively crowds. Although many autistic folks might find it overwhelming, for me, it’s invigorating. To go hang out with friends in hip restaurants, to be part of that energy, brings me such joy and a sense of really relishing life.
The challenge lies in the intersection of my disability and the logistics of being out in public. I am always working hard to regulate how my body acts. But it is all too common that it disobeys the instructions from my mind, and when that happens, I am flooded with anxiety and sometimes embarrassment, which further spins my body out of my control. Add the weight of judgmental and even unkind stares and comments, as well as the shame of failing once again to overcome this awful struggle between my mind and body, and it can spiral into a miserable and stressful experience.
It’s not so much the noises or lights or even crowds that stress me out, but more specific triggers, like needing to use the bathroom, being too hot, or getting thirsty or hungry. Like many autistic folks, I have trouble with interoception, meaning that it is difficult to monitor the signals that my body is trying to send me. I often don’t realize that I urgently need to relieve myself or drink or eat until I already am in physical distress. And when I cannot immediately fix the problem, I grow anxious and sometimes panic.
Add that to my idiosyncratic behaviors and general motor control issues, and you have a situation where it is hard for me to be confident that I will be calm and “appropriately” behaved in any public space, including restaurants. And I absolutely cringe at the prospect of people’s judgmental stares and comments. It is common for me to catch people looking rudely or laughing at me, or even making fun of me. And even the staff at restaurants often show their discomfort and confusion about me openly. I am used to it in a way, but nonetheless, it still hurts.
But I so love going out to eat! It is such a celebration of food and friends and life! And I love the bustling and energetic atmosphere of busy, happy restaurants. Maybe it is stressful for other autistic people, but I as an individual adore it — so it’s always a relief to find spaces where the staff are kind, understanding, and compassionate about my challenges. It’s an immense comfort to be greeted as a “normal” customer, to feel welcomed and not like an inconvenient oddity. It is all too rare to be seamlessly accepted and given the same courtesy as neurotypical guests.
That’s why I gravitate toward restaurants where I have seen kindness from staff, where the bathrooms are easy to access, and where it is easy to get water and food — even if only a bread basket — while waiting for our orders. I also appreciate places with genuinely interesting style in decor, and of course an intriguing menu with creative and thoughtful dishes on offer.
As an autistic person, and one who cannot really functionally speak, I often feel constraints on what I can do and enjoy — not only because of my disability, but also the societal context in which we all operate. What I have learned is that it is entirely possible for me to enjoy absolutely wonderful experiences in restaurants, indulging in festive meals and making fantastic new memories with my loved ones.
That evening at Kindred, with its inventive menu and fascinating decor (Victorian punk with some cats thrown into the mix) and the gentle murmur of a happy crowd, is still fresh on my mind and palate. It was so liberating to be able to focus on the flavorful food, my friend, and the energy around us, rather than agonizing over how “different” I am. Sometimes all it takes is a gentle smile and compassionate spirit to make the difference.
Danny Whitty is a minimally speaking and apraxic autistic writer, advocate, and friend, who uses Spelling to Communicate (S2C) and adores food, the ocean, and travel.