Living with an autistic child

“From now on, I know where my family is going to be comfortable dining in Huntsville.” 

Those were the words uttered by a Huntsville mother whose child suffers from severe autism.

For most families with young children, dining out can be tough. However, when your child has autism, things can become contentious. This has been the experience for Christina and Billy Smith, along with their son Braden.

“It is very difficult going out to public places with an autistic child who has sensory issues,” Christina said. “We have received side-eyes at the grocery store, and we have had to leave movie theaters after 10 minutes. Pools are the worst for us because lifeguards do not understand why he will not speak.”

On Friday, the Smith family dropped off their 3-year-old daughter at a church pajama party and decided to take their 13-year-old son and 7-year-old Braden to dinner at Denny’s in Huntsville.

“We were at Denny’s in the back booth and everything was going fine,” Smith said. “Halfway through our meal, Braden had his third screaming meltdown and my husband took him outside, so my other son and I could finish our meal. Mike, the manager, expressed his sympathy and insisted we were just as welcome as anybody else. He went out and brought Braden and my husband back in to finish dinner.”

Lights and sounds can cause issues for children with sensory sensitivities from autism. In Braden’s case, sights, sounds, tastes and touch can be aggravating stimuli. Braden is also non-verbal and repeats noises and voices.

“I know people with autistic children and how hard it can be for families with people who do not understand,” Denny’s manager Mike Clifton said. “It is not his fault, so there is no need to make a scene or get angry. More people need to be understanding and accepting and not so quick to judge. They were not bothering anyone and we wanted to make sure they were fed and had a good experience.”

Autism can be mistaken for bad behavior or other illnesses by those without first-hand experience. However, there are many resources in the community to provide education about the disease and support those impacted.

“I feel like there is a lot of ignorance about autism and there is not enough awareness,” Smith said.

A local organization that helps children with autism and other issues is the Sam Houston State University branch of Project Sunshine, which provides service to children with special needs, ages 3-and-older, along with their families. The volunteers host activities for the kids, including park days, parades, bowling dates, movie trips, fall festivals and carnivals.

“Braden is involved in Project Sunshine, gets speech therapy at Believe Therapies, TLC classes at Huntsville Elementary and will soon take part in the SPARK DNA project,” Smith added. “He was also given a communication device that has helped him a lot.”

Huntsville’s Ark Church hosted a 5K run in April to raise funds for devices that autistic children can communicate through, which led to Braden receiving a tablet that allows him to point at the pictures to communicate.

“We have been fortunate to receive the support we have from the community, but we have never been treated so well while dining with Braden,” Smith said. “I want them to be recognized and for other parents of special needs kids to know that they will be treated with acceptance and respect at Denny’s.”