New Jersey Restaurant Caters to Children with Autism with Sensory Dining Room

In Ocean County, N.J., one family restaurant is catering to the autistic community. The newly-opened Riv’s Toms River Hub, a Rivoli family restaurant, will have a sensory dining room dedicated to providing a full-service dining experience to children with autism, thanks to inspiration from the owners’ young grandson, Chase.

The sensory room, which the family decided to name “Chase’s Friends Zone,” will accommodate about 45 people and has a private entrance. Every aspect of the dining room will cater to autistic diners, from the menu and food options to the lighting and everything in between. Also, all of the waiters will be certified by KultureCity, a nonprofit that specializes in inclusion for people with autism, and owner Tony Rivoli plans to hire people with disabilities to bus tables in the room as well.

Rivoli isn’t stopping there. Twenty percent of proceeds from “Chase’s Friends Zone” will be distributed into a fund administered by a nonprofit, most likely Hometown Heroes of Toms River, according to the Asbury Park Press.

The room also will feature what the Rivolis are calling “The Family Tree.” Each guest who eats in the room will be able to put their last name on a puzzle piece, which will be placed on the wall on a mural of a tree, which is being painted by the older daughter of Peggy Kruger, a Toms River special education teacher who is helping the Rivolis with the project.

“This is something we feel passionate about,” Kruger told the Asbury Park Press. “We want families to be able to come here and not feel stigmatized or out of place, and for kids to be who they are and feel acceptance.”

Kruger’s younger daughter, Emma, 12, also has autism, so the project hits close to home for her as well.

The room will cater to many of the neurological senses, including soothing lighting, a table-less corner filled with beanbag chairs for patrons to “chill” in, and a visual menu using iPads, where all of the food will be pictured. All of these elements are designed to help autistic patrons relax and get a break from the usual hustle and bustle of typical restaurants. Many times, as Kruger noted, “there are so many sights and sounds and smells and people that our kids are not able to filter it all out.” This struggle can cause families to forego eating out at all. The Rivolis are seeking to end that and start a new trend for restaurants.

The sensory room projects to be finished and ready for business come early November.

“This really will be a dream come true for so many people,” Christina Proctor, a Brick resident and autism teacher in Jersey City who also is helping to lead the project, told the Asbury Park Press. “We want this to be a movement. We want it to spread like wildfire.”

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