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An Educational Experience Provided by the Big Easy™ Cafe by Ernie Els  

By Merrick Egber

Starting with the grand opening of the Stoops Family Adult Services Building, the Big Easy™ Cafe by Ernie Els debuted as a cafe serving homemade meals and specialty beverages to our staff, parents, clients, and guests on our campus. Overseeing our cafe is General Manager Jenn Wilson, who earned her degree at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. Before joining Els for Autism®, she owned the Lazy Loggerhead Cafe for 20 years with her husband, Brian, who is now the line cook for the cafe. We wanted to find out why the cafe has been so successful for two months and what we can learn from their experiences. 

While at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), Mrs. Wilson learned about the mindset required to run a restaurant, where teaching staff growth must happen daily. Although they didn’t teach her how to serve people with autism, she credits her experiences at the CIA with opening her up to being thoughtful, considerate, and adaptable when serving populations with autism. She finds it refreshing to learn about the clients, their dietary needs, and their parents, who care for them. It is a rewarding daily experience to discover new and exciting ways to provide for that population. 

At the cafe, the ingredients used keep the diet of autistic individuals in mind. The mindset one must have to serve a population with autism is to be open to trying new and different things than what one is used to and to be flexible with the choices supplied to the kitchen. As examples of our flexibility and experimentation, we offer vegan ice cream, gluten-free options since many individuals with autism are allergic to gluten, and various dairy options, including almond milk, oat milk, and coconut yogurt. 

As a regular visitor to the cafe, having the clients’ dietary needs met is one thing. Still, creating an inviting and comfortable place to sit down without being overstimulated is also essential. Mrs. Wilson ensures the cafe’s environment, including the choice of music, provides the ambiance needed to provide a positive experience for autistic individuals. “Music is magic,” she says, explaining that the listener may become calm, excited, or even hungry. She also changes the music regularly to keep the environment interesting, offering genres from jazz to classical. Additionally, screens display faraway places without sound to help calm individuals with autism and provide an enjoyable experience. 

Whether you are enjoying Homemade Happiness in our Big Easy Cafe or at home, here are six mealtime best practices for families impacted by autism: 

Provide predictability: Using visual supports (e.g., first/then boards – first lunch, then playground) surrounding mealtimes can be a helpful way to let your child know it will soon be time to eat. 

Minimize distractions: Distractions, such as screen time, can take the focus off the food. Schedule mealtimes when your child is alert and ready to eat to support increased attention. 

Give praise: Provide specific behavior across mealtime (e.g., “I love the way you are sitting in your seat!”, “Great job trying a new food!” “You did a great job taking a bite of the pumpkin spiced bread!”) to reinforce positive feeding behaviors. 

Ensure comfortable seating: A booster/cushion/lumbar support will allow your child to sit upright without leaning. Proper positioning during mealtimes promotes positive mealtime behaviors and enhances safety while eating. 

Have your child participate and be involved: Even if your child does not like the food getting made, give your child an active role in preparing the meal. Involving your child allows the opportunity to explore and play with different food without expecting your child to eat.   

Presentation: Present new foods in small servings while making mealtime fun to increase your child’s likelihood of eating.