MMI partnership offers families a judgment-free dining experience

Georgia Ryba, respite care associate at MMI

Georgia Ryba, respite care associate at MMI

Georgia Ryba still remembers the days when dining out was tough.

Like the time she broke a dumpling in half to serve to her daughter, who is on the autism spectrum.

“She had a meltdown. I didn’t realize breaking the dumpling was a trigger,” Ryba said. “I left a really big tip and never went back. A lot of families struggle with that.”

Ryba, a respite care associate at the Munroe-Meyer Institute, said dining out has gotten easier as her daughter has gotten older. Now Ryba has teamed up with Autism Eats, a national organization that helps families experience judgment-free dining.

The first sensory friendly dining experience in Nebraska is set for May 14 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Pizza West, 12040 McDermott Plaza in La Vista.

Families will pre-register and pre-pay at Cost is $15 for adults and $8 for kids. Financial assistance may be available. There is no registration deadline, but reservations are capped at 45 diners.

Food will be served buffet-style, with a menu including pizza, chicken tenders, salad, fries, pitchers of soda and dessert.

“One of the things that can be a real hindrance for families when they go out is waiting for everything,” Ryba said. At the May event, “there’s no waiting for a waiter. No waiting for a bill. We’re eliminating all of that.”

Restaurants bring other challenges, like the noise level, new smells and bright lights that can be triggers for some children.

“Sometimes people don’t understand what’s going on,” Ryba said. “There’s a feeling of judgment, of being seen as not parenting right. They don’t understand that your child is just overwhelmed.”

Autism Eats, which is based in Boston, helps to organize the events and handle finances. The group also provides guidance to restaurants on how to prepare a welcoming space for families. The organization recently was named a Rising Star by the ARCH National Respite Network and Resource Center.

Ryba hopes the event provides a break for parents from having to cook and clean up the kitchen.

“You’re not going to be judged in any way. Ten forks might end up on the floor, or your kid might want to twirl around while they eat pizza,” Ryba said. “Folks also get a chance to connect with other families, and other diners can see us having a good time and celebrating who we are.”