LOCAL DINER MAKES EATING OUT EASY FOR A LOCAL FAMILY WITH A CHILD WITH AUTISM — CUMBERLAND — When Wilma Surber first started taking her 10-year-old grandson out to eat, he was nonverbal, often only able to communicate by screaming.
"We didn't know what he wanted. And he didn't know how to communicate to us what he wanted. So if he was happy, he screamed; if he was sad, he screamed," Surber explained.
Her grandson, Milo, has autism. The autism spectrum is so vast and has different meanings for each diagnosed person that these experiences can be challenging to explain to others.
Dining out with her grandson presented a particular set of difficulties, different from her 10 other grandchildren, that she wasn't sure how to navigate.
Surber likes to take Milo out to eat in the evenings and on weekends when he stays with her.
"Some forms of special needs you can tell, but autism, you can't. And so, he just appeared like an undisciplined child. So a lot of people would be very hard on us because they thought that we needed to discipline him," Surber explained of how fellow patrons at restaurants would be toward her and Milo.
Surber says she knows patrons' feelings when a child seems to be causing a scene for no apparent reason because she used to be like that herself. "He's really educated the whole family," she said of Milo.
"I really learned a lot. Because at one point, that would have been me because I didn't know either," Surber said.
It was often hard to find a restaurant that either had a patient wait staff, understanding Milo's behavior, or a room full of patrons not staring at them. It was tough to get both of those things.
That is until she took Milo with her to Sero's Family Restaurant in Cumberland one evening.
"The night manager," Surber recalled, "she said, 'don't ever feel bad to bring Milo.' And she said, 'you're always welcome and he will always be welcome.' And she said, 'I assure you, he doesn't disturb anybody.'"
The reassurance the staff at Sero's extended to Surber meant more to her than she could've ever imagined. Not only to help alleviate the stress and stares, but because she felt she now had a place to bring Milo often that could help her teach him how to be in public.
"He needed to learn how to associate with other people. And so they, unbeknownst to them, helped us teach him," Surber explained.
Violeta Lulgjuraj, an owner of Sero's, believes a restaurant must make everyone feel comfortable.
Lulgjuraj says she and her staff continually assess what a party may need to feel the most comfortable. For instance, spending more time with a table because they require attention, offering a table off to the side for more privacy or even aiding someone with a physical disability.
"I am not surprised at all if they are loud, if they scream, if they make noises, and things like that, because they didn't choose to be born that way, that's who they are," Lulgjuraj said. "And for us, it's our duty to make a difference in their lives to make them feel comfortable, to make them feel wanted, and to take care of them regardless of their needs. Whatever needs they have, you have to take care of them."
Sero's has been a community staple on the far east side of Indianapolis, offering breakfast, lunch, and dinner since the Lulgjuraj's first opened in 1998.
Lulgjuraj says she's made it a point to recognize every regular for the last two decades.
"I remember every single person. How many times a week they come, how many times a month they come, because I'm here all the time," Lulgjuraj said. "When you are a family-owned business. You have to be there all the time."
The Surber family has been to Sero's a lot in the last two years, Lulgjuraj said, and she's happy to be of service. She also adds that Milo is certainly not the only person with autism who dines at Sero's.
"We have a lot of sweet customers that they have children with autism and other things, but they are the sweetest people. Once you get to know them — and you try to know them — they're the sweetest people," Lulgjuraj said.
Initiating an open dialogue with families of individuals with autism — such as Sero's did with the Surber family — is something Tracy Gale, the director of autism and behavior services at Easterseals Crossroads, says restaurants can do to be autism-friendly.
"The restaurant can ask if families need any accommodations. So, if they need to be placed in a part of the restaurant that is maybe quieter, or away from the hustle of the kitchen, or, it may be thinking about some places that might have fireplaces, if your child is sensitive to temperature, you probably don't want to be right next to the fireplace," Gale explained.
Gale says opening that line of communication about what accommodations a restaurant can offer to families in these situations, however, is a delicate line to balance. Because no two families will be the same, and it's tricky ground to assume a disability.
"The difficulty is we don't want restaurants to only ask families that appear as if they need accommodations. So if it can be done kind of discreetly, or across the board, maybe even having something on their website that says, 'if you need accommodations and seating, please contact us, let us know.' I think it's really about being open," Gale said.
She recommends that all restaurants looking to offer an autism-friendly atmosphere directly state that in a place families can easily find it, such as signage or on their website.
On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new data that suggests 1 in 44 children in the United States was affected by autism. According to the Associated Press, experts believe the rise in more children being diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum reflects more awareness in our society and broader availability of services.
Gale says that, despite this recent finding, families still have to dig for sensory-friendly experiences and restaurants.
Gale advises that until more restaurants incorporate this in their operations, families should take it upon themselves to reach out to establishments they wish to visit and ask for exactly what they need to see if their staff can provide it.
"Families could reach out to the places in their local community, and ask them those questions, and maybe even encourage them to put it on their websites and put it in their social media, so that people can get this information because it's so valuable," Gale said. "It really takes some of the guesswork out of knowing where you can go and what you can do."
Surber says Milo thinks his world is perfect. And she thinks the way he sees the world is perfect.
Milo's grandmother says she wants to make the world just a little bit easier for him now before he gets older.
"We just have to learn how to live in their world and communicate with them. Because they're no different than anyone else. They just want love and attention and to just fit in. That's all."
WRTV Digital Reporter Shakkira Harris can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow her on Twitter, @shakkirasays.