Purple Table Reservations: How One Company is Accommodating Autism in Restaurants

When he was growing up, Becky Mola’s son loved going to restaurants. Except when he didn’t.

“Most of the time, he was excellent,” she said, recalling her now-34-year-old son’s teen years, “but sometimes it was too much for him.” Diagnosed with autism at age five, he’d always enjoyed being out in public, but the lights, the sounds, the general restaurant hubbub could occasionally trigger outbursts. “Sometimes I didn’t even know the reason,” she said, remembering one trip the family took years ago to Taco Bell. When a random person walked by, her son reached out and flipped over the stranger’s tray, and “we had to leave immediately.”

These days, Mola works on the “other side of the table,” as she describes it, as a server at the Red Raven Restaurant in Acton, Massachusetts – the first of a growing network of restaurants that have signed on to Purple Table Reservations, a new online directory/mobile app that offers a reservation training program and reservation flag designed specifically for families living with autism, dementia/Alzheimer’s disease, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury, a hearing or vision impairment, or any physical or cognitive condition that may benefit from a more predictable environment and additional accommodations when dining out.”

Available on the Web or as a free downloadable app, Purple Table Reservations is designed to provide families a way to go out to eat without having to explain anything about their specific situations, says Jenifer Apazidis, who created the service. Apazidis, who also owns The Red Raven, started Purple Table a year ago after seeing what they achieved at their restaurant when they knew someone needed additional accommodations, and how easy it was to provide them.  They also noticed that they infrequently had requests for such accommodations and wanted to give guests a discreet way to let them know someone in their party would benefit from trained staff and a more predictable environment.

If we see it’s a Purple Table reservation, we know what basic accommodations to make without any further discussion.

But since she launched Purple Table a year ago, she says, she has seen that begin to change. With 16 participating restaurants in four states—Massachusetts, Ohio, Oregon, and North Carolina—Apazidis already has 12 more restaurants applying to join. Over the last year, she says, The Red Raven restaurant has had more than 100 Purple Table reservations, and 50 of the first 60 were new customers. The idea, she explains, is that “if we see it’s a Purple Table reservation, we know what basic accommodations to make without any further discussion.” And that knowledge, she says, comes from systematic staff training.

To participate in Purple Table, restaurants must register and make a commitment to train all staff members. The staff must go through a special training program that teaches basic ways to make the restaurant experience a more predictable one, which can include seating location (quieter area, well lit, close to restrooms) and limited stimulation to reduce sensory overload (clinking of glassware/flatware, not near TV, keeping staff interaction streamlined, etc.).

As both a server at The Red Raven, and as a parent of a young man with autism, Becky Mola can appreciate just how important a service like Purple Table can be. Eventually as her son matured, Mola and her family figured out ways they could all to go out to dinner: she and her husband would sit on either side of their son and try to help control the environment for him. But with Purple Table, she says, families can have “the confidence that when you go into a restaurant, there’s going to be an understanding that your person needs a little more special attention – a quieter spot without constant interruptions, a server with more patience…even the kitchen is informed in case the family requires special plating needs.” Now a young man, Mola’s son is living in a group home with high-school classmates, and with support, leading an independent life. While he likely wouldn’t use the service for himself, his mother explains, “our family definitely would, and I could see this being valuable to other young adults with special needs who want to be able to go out on their own.”

With autism, she explains, new situations can be difficult, along with uncontrolled environments full of activity. “We understand that,” she says, and the hope is that with a Purple Table reservation, “people can trust that we do.”

Have you used Purple Table? Do you know of any similar services? We’d love to hear about them in the comments, as well as any additional tips you might have about dining out.

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Cara Feinberg is a journalist working print and in documentary television. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Atlantic Online, The American Prospect, and Harvard Magazine, and she has worked on television documentaries for the PBS science series NOVA, Discovery Science Channel, Travel Channel, and DreamWorks Animation. She can be reached at www.CaraFeinberg.com.

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