Note: This first ran on September 20. With a special needs child being part of my family this is something near to my heart. I wanted to remind folks that the special inclusion night this NJ restaurant is having is coming up soon, so get your reservation in now.

I have a special needs child. Atticus just turned 4. He's been receiving every recommended therapy, ABA, OT, speech, etcetera, and he's making progress. Yet autism has no cure, and there are times he will have a sensory overload. My wife and I have an expression for this. We'll call those times "when his skin doesn't fit."

He will stim (obsessively flap a piece of paper for the sensory input), rock, sometimes make a repetitive noise. He's already getting far better with these things, but when he's out and this happens, we get dirty looks. Frankly, we get outright disgusted looks. People don't understand, or don't care, what he's feeling, and they get annoyed at him.

So restaurants are difficult. Many times, because of how other people are, not because of how Atticus is, we have taken a pass when friends invite our family out. If you have a special needs child, I know you can relate to this.

I heard from Adam Rutkowski the other day. Great guy, and owner of a restaurant called Harper's Table in Annandale, NJ (Clinton Twp). He has been working with his employees on the concept of 'inclusion dining' for special needs kids. While they will always welcome anyone at any time, they are having special nights where they go out of their way to foster a calmer experience than an ordinary day. Whether it's sounds, lighting, special menus, they try to make every accommodation possible. Leah Barron is part of his team at Harper's Table, and she is very active in developing events and programs for special needs, such as Inclusion Festival. Adam donates a chunk of the proceeds to her causes.

Adam came up with the idea after reading about a place in Massachusetts called Autism Eats which does largely this sort of thing. What you can expect at Harper's Table on an Inclusion Night is dimmer lighting, lower music to be easier on people with sensory issues like my son. Games and therapy tools to assist parents. Menus with pictures for kids. A "social story" they made for parents to help explain to their children what happens when you go out to eat; what the host does, what the server does, how to order, what to expect, etc.. They have therapists on-site during these nights to make things easier on families. They have special menus with gluten-free, dairy-free, and many other options to accommodate people with food allergies or aversions, something very common in the autism community.

"If I can give one person, one family a night out where I can cook for them, clean up and they can just chill out and not worry about judgement, behavior, dietary issues, crowds, noise etc…my mission is accomplished," Adam humbly told me.

The next Inclusion Night is October 14 starting at 5pm. They strongly suggest making a reservation because they stagger seating to keep the place quieter than usual as part of the special accommodations. It also reduces the time for people to have their food delivered to their tables which even parents of neuro-typical kids would appreciate!

Again, anyone is welcome at any time. This is just something Harper's Table is doing so special needs families will be able to get out, have a good experience for their kids, not be harshly judged and have a nice time. It's wonderful they are doing this and I wanted to get word out. Please share this with any special needs families you know.

Remember, the next Inclusion Night happens October 14 beginning at 5pm.

Harper's Table is at 1316 State Highway 31, Annandale, NJ. Phone is 908-200-7271. Check out their website here.

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