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Mary’s adds ‘autism kits’ to the menu

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In an innovative pilot program announced during Autism Awareness Month this spring, Mary’s Pizza Shack has partnered with leading autism services nonprofit, Anova, to provide free use of “sensory friendly kits” at every one of the restaurant’s Sonoma County locations.

“We wanted to provide kids with autism and other sensory issues the opportunity to enjoy dining without feeling overwhelmed by their surroundings,” said Anova cofounder Andrew Bailey. “Eating is a basic need and the fun of eating out should be available to everyone.”

Anova reached out to dozens of restaurants in Sonoma County to offer them the free kits, according to its community relations director Jackie Hadley. Mary’s was the first to jump on board and Mary’s Plaza-restaurant manager Mike Clark said that everyone was immediately enthusiastic about the idea. “We have a number of employees whose lives have been touched by autism or learning differences in one way or the other and so our staff was 100 percent enthusiastic about our partnership with Anova.”

Each Mary’s storefront now sports a sticker announcing the availability of the kits. Table tent cards about the kits are on order. A public awareness campaign is underway through local radio to help get the word out to more families about the program and perhaps entice more restaurants to participate.

Anova has provided sensory training to Mary’s staff at all locations and developed an informational video.

“How kids with autism feel about themselves is based in large part on how adults interact with them,” said Bailey.

“We want to show them that they are welcome here,” added Clark.

Clark’s wife and father are both special-education teachers, so he was particularly receptive to the idea. “It’s been an honor and a pleasure,” he said.

Kyler Evans, 7, takes a small school bus each day from Sonoma Valley to Anova’s campus in Santa Rosa. His mom, Nicole, said that he likes coming to Mary’s at the Plaza after school and, over some pizza, he showed his favorite item in the plastic tub: the green and purple puzzle.

Each kit is a “toolbox” of calming strategies to help kids or adults with sensory sensitivities avoid feeling overwhelmed in a restaurant. It gives them the ability to enjoy environments that might otherwise feel too stressful, explained Hadley, whether it is because of noise, lights, smells or the feel of certain things. Items in the kit keep the part of the brain that is bombarded with sensory stimuli busy and calm.

Inside the plastic carrying case is a noise-reduction ear muff, a weighted lap blanket, an array of stress- and fidget-reduction toys, a chart with an emotion scale printed on it and some instructional social-situation stories. There is also a small item that children can take home with them at the end of the meal.

The kits are provided to any family who requests one, no questions asked, and any elements that are used are thoroughly cleaned by the staff before the box is reloaded.

Many families still aren’t aware that the kits are available, but Anova is actively gathering feedback from those who have tried them, said Hadley, to fine tune the kit contents and expand the program to other restaurants.

“So many families choose not to dine out or enjoy some activities because of the overwhelming challenges involved,” said Bailey. “We want to turn that around by equipping restaurants like Mary’s with tools that will help create a stress-free dining environment for any family that might find it helpful.”

The program isn’t a moneymaker for anyone. “We’re doing this just because we can and we should,” said Clark “We’re very family-oriented. We want all of our customers to enjoy our restaurants and are eager to take whatever steps to make that possible.”

The Mary’s locations are now officially Sonoma County’s first sensory friendly restaurants.

Anova provides specialized services to children and teens with high-functioning autism and related social, emotional and behavioral challenges. The nonprofit runs ACE (Anova Center for Education) K-12 school campuses in Santa Rosa, San Rafael and Concord.

Anova recently signed a 10-year lease at Santa Rosa’s Luther Burbank Center, enabling it to expand its ACE school. The nonprofit occupies space that was once home to Sonoma Country Day School and Sonoma Academy.

Bailey is proud of the success of his students. One ACE student recently transitioned from the Santa Rosa campus to a Sonoma Valley middle school and in the spring won both an essay award and a lead role in a school play.

Bailey and Mary Beth Ludwig founded Anova in Santa Rosa in 2000, and currently the nonprofit provides behavioral and therapy services throughout 15 counties in California, serving more than 500 children daily.

Email Lorna at lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com.