South Australian woman’s bid for autism friendly dining

An autistic woman has created Australia’s first sensory dining experience so people like her can enjoy dining out.

Deanna Flynn Wallis struggled for years with concentration in school and sensory issues, and particularly had to deal with a cousin who had been diagnosed with autism.

But it wasn’t until she started working with autistic children that she was empowered to get her own diagnosis.

It’s been two years since she was diagnosed with autism and ADHD, and one of the things Ms Wallis has particularly struggled with is going out to eat.

“I always feel very overwhelmed and have huge anxiety about going out, especially ordering a menu that I know isn’t right for me or being around people who don’t necessarily understand,” she told news.com.au.

Many people with autism have sensory issues involving light, sound, and the texture of clothing and food.

Her family owns the Oak and Iron Tavern in Mount Barker, South Australia, and she started thinking about how their pub could be friendlier to people like her.

That’s when he thought about “building his own plate.”

She worked with Autism SA and the Australian Hotels Association to find out if she was the only person who had sensory needs around food and going out to eat, and when she found out that wasn’t the case, she hosted a calm, sensory dinner at the pub restaurant.

“There are chicken nuggets and chips, a staple in the autistic community. Everyone loves chicken nuggets,” she said.

“And there is another standard option of an amazing beef pie and chips slow cooked for six hours.”

Diners can choose from a variety of protein options such as grilled chicken, plain sausages or vegan nuggets, paired with carbohydrates such as plain penne or mashed potatoes and a variety of vegetables.

All the options are placed on a divided plate so nothing is touching and there are different toppings and sauces on the table so people can add what they want to their food.

The Oak and Iron Tavern is gearing up for their second Quiet and Sensory Dinner, held once a month.

Diners eat in a private area with a separate bar and entrance.

There is no music and there are sensory toys on the table.

The other venues, the Arkaba Hotel and the Brompton Hotel, have also hosted quiet dinners but do not have a sensory menu.

“It has been so overwhelming for me to see the responses on social media from people who finally feel seen and healthy,” Ms. Wallis said.

“We’ve had pubs contact us from the motorway to ask if they have any guidance on how to create a sensory menu.

“At our first dinner last month, we had a beautiful mother and daughter come up from Adelaide and they hadn’t been out for a year and a half because there’s so much anxiety about going out.

“And for them to approach us to feel safe and heard and comfortable was so nice to me that they chose us to be the first outing.”

Ms Wallis said she knew it would be popular but underestimated how big it would become, adding that it had been a good help on her journey.

For the next school holidays, there are plans for a quiet, sensory lunch paired with watching Despicable Me 4 as Mrs Wallis owns Wallis Cinemas, which is next door to the pub.

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