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Autism-Friendly Dining Offered In Del Mar

San Diego Week: Autism-Friendly Dining

A restaurant in Del Mar is the first in the county to offer “autism friendly dinning.” KPBS reporter Peggy Pico says the restaurant is one of several in local businesses reaching out to autism families.


Denny’s Restaurant in Del Mar is the first in the county to offer autism-friendly dining.

— Sergio Gonzales is happy that a Denny’s Restaurant in Del Mar is offering a special dining opportunity for families with autism.

He likes to take his daughter, Sofia, out to eat—but says it is not always easy.

“I like “Moons over Miami” just like everyone else," said Gonzales. "There are just days Sofia is out of control and we can’t go."

At first glance, Sofia Gonzales looks and sounds like a typical four-year-old—until you listen closely. Her vocabulary is limited and she has difficulty making eye contact.

Sofia has autism. She was diagnosed just before she turned two. Her mother, Patty Gonzales, credits friends for noticing something was wrong.

“Some of the other moms mentioned that she wasn’t verbalizing that much. She didn’t answer to her name,“ said Gonzales.

A trip to the pediatrician led to the diagnosis.

“The doctor asked me how many words was she using, I said about eight to 10. She looked very worried and concerned. Then the doctor said we needed to have Sofia screened for autism, because she should have been using between 50 and 75 words by age two,” Gonzales recalled.

Delayed or absent speech is a hallmark sign of autism, a brain disorder that disrupts a child’s behavior and ability to communicate.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports one in 110 American children have some form of autism.

According to the CDC, symptoms of autism include:

  • Difficult or non-existent social interaction
  • Little or no verbal and non-verbal communication
  • Repetitive behaviors
  • Sensitivity to sound, light and touch

It’s those types of behavior issues that make it difficult for families like the Gonzales’ to go out for a movie or dinner.

But that’s beginning to change. Thanks to people like Robert Stange. He’s the manager at Denny’s Restaurant in Del Mar. Stange said he was inspired to do something about autism from watching the news.

“I had seen a news segment about a restaurant in New York that had a night set aside for children with autism and their families, and I just thought that was a really great idea” explained Stange.

On January 23, 2011, Denny’s in Del Mar became the first and so far only restaurant in the county to designate a part of their restaurant to autism-friendly dining.

“I’m really into social responsibility and giving back. I think everybody should try and do a little more to help each other out. This is one way that our place is trying to do more,” said Stange.

Twenty-two people showed up for opening night. The cook and servers got a list of special dietary needs. Denny’s plans to offer special "Meet and Eat" nights for autistic kids and their families once a month on Sunday.

Patty Gonzales calls it a good for everyone.

“It’s good for business, it’s good support for families. I think it’s good for the kids and it’s great for awareness,” said Gonzales.

Shirley Fett is the president of the Autism Society in San Diego. She says autism services here are some of the best in the country. Other local businesses like the YMCA, AquaPro’s swim school and AMC theaters also cater to people with autism.

“We have the AMC theaters, there are two locations, one in Mission Valley and one in the South Bay," said Fett. "They do once-a-month ‘sensory-friendly films.’ That’s where they turn down the sound a little and keep the lights up a little, because our kids are really sensitive to sound and light."

Patty Gonzales becomes emotional when expressing how important these business gestures are for her.

“It's how big of a deal this is. That there are these supports in place—because it has made all of the difference in our family,” said Gonzales.

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