Schaumburg restaurant becomes first autism-friendly restaurant in Chicago area

World Autism Awareness Day

SCHAUMBURG, Ill. (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- A Schaumburg restaurant was recently recognized as the first sensory-friendly space for people with autism in the Chicagoland area.

Bright lights, bustling crowds, and loud music can create distress for people with autism, especially children. This can often make families of people on the spectrum avoid restaurants. Ana Santos-Vitelo wanted to change that.

"I thought, 'well, we serve food, we cook every day, but I need to do more. I need to like, help somebody,'" Santos-Vitelo told WBBM Newsradio.

She's the co-owner of Brazil Express Grill, a Brazilian steakhouse that serves diners a cuisine that includes fire-grilled Brazilian meats, fresh and delicious salads, homemade side dishes, and desserts. She and her staff partnered with an Illinois-based nonprofit, the Autism Hero Project, to make the restaurant experience more welcoming for everyone.

“To be autism sensory-friendly means to create an opportunity where autistic individuals and their families feel welcomed at our restaurant,” Santos-Vitelo said. “Our restaurant has made accommodations which are responsive to the autistic needs of individuals and their families and have been intentionally put in place thanks to our partnership with AHP, but not at the expense of others dining at the restaurant who are not impacted by autism.

“We feel strongly that this is a much-needed initiative to create a world of inclusion. Our dream is that other organizations will follow suit and implement changes in their own operations in order to be more inclusive.”

Santos-Vitelo noted families with children on the autism spectrum don’t take their children out to a restaurant "out of fear that somebody else will stare at them."

As a response Brazil Express Grill has made the following changes to be a more inclusive space: a “Busy Buddy Sensory Box” which contains earphones and sensory toys such as balls, spinners, and cubes to help children remain calm and provide the sensory experiences they seek; a storybook created specifically for Brazil Express Grill that shows pictures of the restaurant so a child will understand what to expect at the restaurant; a semi-private room that’s available during weekdays free of charge (if the room hasn’t been reserved) so a child and his or her family can dine there if they prefer; and a kid’s- and sensory-friendly menu that caters to various dietary restrictions, but is not limited to a gluten-free and/or dairy-free diet.

Additionally, the staff at Brazil Express Grill went through training to recognize signs of autism. They will offer to dim the lights and turn the music down to help make the dining experience less stressful for families.

"It's just like, a little extra step that we can do, and I think other businesses can do that too," Santos-Vitelo said.

"Because [families of people with autism] don't go out...because they're afraid. They don't want to expose themselves. And that's not good. We should accept that it's different, but it's okay."

Brazil Express Grill will be partnering with the Autism Hero Project this fall for its second “Eat Like a HERO for Autism” fundraiser to raise awareness and funds for the cause. The inaugural “Eat Like a HERO for Autism” fundraiser was held in March. Just by using the “HERO” promo code for dine-in or ordering online, 20 percent of the pre-tax check amount will be donated to The Autism Hero Project to help its mission of purchasing medical insurance for children on the Autism spectrum.

“What I love about Brazil Express Grill is that it’s an amazing restaurant and families deserve that,” said Tamika Lechee-Morales, president of the Autism Hero Project. “We have to get to a world of belonging and inclusion where everybody feels like they’re encouraged to just be themselves and not be afraid to go out into the world like everyone else. Everybody should be able to enjoy a nice meal at a nice restaurant whenever they feel they want to go out. And if you only knew how many people won’t do it out of fear. We want to work to break negative stigmas and barriers.”