Taking the Lead: Autism Family Night

Posted: March 19, 2008

On April 15, about 70 T.G.I. Friday's® restaurants in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey will host the second annual Autism Family Night. By welcoming families touched by autism to dine out, the event allows people who are often stigmatized for the unusual behavior of a family member to feel comfortable in a public setting.

The concept for Autism Family Night came out of a discussion between Take the Lead alum Alexandra Abend and her parents. In the fall of 2006, Abend took her idea to Mount Holyoke College, where she took part in the Take the Lead program for high school juniors and developed a feasible project aimed at helping thousands of families like hers.

Abend, whose younger brother is autistic, recognized the unique needs of families who care for an autistic person--and the luxury it is for them to dine out. Normal activities that bring parents and siblings together, like going to an amusement park or eating at a restaurant, can turn into situations of stress and embarrassment.

"You're always on your toes when you're living with someone with autism," Abend said. "It's unpredictable. You don't know whether they're going to be happy or angry or upset or lashing out."

Thanks to Take the Lead, Abend pinpointed a chain restaurant to target, and last year's Autism Family Night was held on April 17 at 35 T.G.I. Friday's locations throughout New Jersey.

"Alexandra is a shining example of the passionate young women who participate in Take the Lead. We guide and empower them to exceed their own expectations," said Patricia VandenBerg, founding director of the program and executive director of communications and strategic initiatives at Mount Holyoke College.

The positive response to Abend's event was overwhelming. When reporters and a local news crew appeared at the restaurant where she and her family were eating, they were taken aback by the commotion.

"My Dad had to rush my brother out of the restaurant," Abend recalled. As he was trying to calm his child, a woman approached their family and offered gummi bears. The family had "never gotten that kind of response before," she added.

One mother approached Abend and was unable to hold back tears as she poured out her thanks. She continually gazed over at a table where her 17-year-old son was sitting. "I'll never forget this. He's having such a good time," she told Abend.

According to the T.G.I. Friday's managers, the restaurants were unusually full during the first annual event. Part of Abend's goal was to give T.G.I. Friday's usual customers a chance to learn about autism. She prepared the servers with information on autism, gave them advice about what to expect from autistic children, and told them to give a short response to anyone who asked, "What's going on tonight?" After the event, Abend and the participating T.G.I. Friday's restaurants received several hundred letters from families.

This year, Autism Family Night has expanded to include T.G.I. Friday's restaurants in three states, and Abend has been asked to participate on the keynote panel for a statewide autism conference. She hopes her initiative will continue to grow.

"Everyone should be able to go out to dinner as a family," she said.

Take the Lead is MHC's leadership program for idealistic, action-oriented young women who want to make a positive difference in the world. Now expanded to a two-week summer program, it provides an opportunity for participants to turn their ideas into action and become effective agents of positive change, while getting a taste of college life with other outstanding young women.

Related Links:

Time Magazine Article

Teen Voices Interview