Deanna Flynn Wallis said for many years, she knew there was something about her that was “different”.

The restaurant owner and director of Wallis Cinemas said she saw a lot of herself in her autistic cousin but was not supported to learn about her “busy brain” in school.

“I kind of went through life struggling with sensory needs, especially surrounding food,” she said.

“I really struggled with textures with food, combinations of food, with seasonings, with sauces and even sometimes colour or foods touching.

“I often got bullied about it at school or when going out for work dinners or going out with friends.”

She said her time as a teacher “passionately advocating” for autistic children was what led to her ADHD and autism diagnosis in 2022.

Doubting she was the only one with sensory needs around food, Ms Wallis said she worked with Autism SA to survey the community, and found it was exceedingly common.

Quiet dinners are being rolled out to cater for those who want a quiet space to enjoy a meal.(ABC News: Stephen Opie)

In partnership with Autism SA and the Australian Hotels Association, Ms Wallis said she created a sensory-friendly menu for “quiet dinners” hosted by the Oak and Iron Tavern in Mount Barker.

The Adelaide Hills pub is the third business in South Australia to join the initiative, after the Arkaba Hotel hosted its first quiet dinner in February of this year.

While the choice to dine out is relatively straight forward for many people, more than half of the autistic community avoid going out for dinner, according to Helen Graham, CEO of Autism SA.

Vesper, a quiet dinner attendee at the Mount Barker pub, said there weren’t a lot of places she could go to have a “peaceful” dinner.

“If I simply just forget my noise cancelling headphones, then my entire night is ruined because I can’t get rid of all the loud noise and it’s overstimulating and it makes it really hard for me to enjoy myself,” she said.

A diner, Vesper, during a sensory-friendly quiet dinner in Mount Barker.(ABC News: Stephen Opie)

She said she liked that the local community was “putting in the effort” for autistic people and non-autistic people who just wanted a quiet space to enjoy a meal.

“I really like all of this, and the menu and how supportive everyone seems to be, and also getting to see how many other people come in and want to enjoy this as well,” she said.

Kaitlin Withers, autism liaison officer for Autism SA, said autistic people and their families often felt “really uncomfortable” going to public places.

“They feel overwhelmed, and they feel judged and not understood by people,” Ms Withers said.

The Adelaide Hills pub is the third business in SA to join the initiative.(ABC News: Stephen Opie)

While there had been hundreds of positive comments about the quiet dinners on social media, Ms Withers said she would like to see more staff training about autism and for people to have empathy for sensory needs.

Ms Wallis said a “cool” aspect of the sensory-friendly menu was being able to build your own plate.

‘Not just the autistic community benefited’

Menu items included the “quintessential” chicken nuggets and chips and a plain, slow cooked beef pie and plates that had been divided into sections, allowing guests to choose their own protein, carbohydrates and vegetables.

“Nothing is seasoned, you put your own seasoning on your food, the sauce is separate to the side … just making it an enjoyable, easier, safer experience,” she said.

A menu for a sensory-friendly quiet dinner.(ABC News: Stephen Opie)

The venue also provided a separate dining room with dim lighting and sensory toys on each table.

Ms Graham said inclusivity “starts in one space” and extended to the broader community.

“When we started our journey on the quiet dinners, we found that not just the autistic community benefited,” she said.

“We got lots and lots of feedback, particularly from the elderly community who quite enjoyed a quieter dinner experience.”

Autism SA CEO Helen Graham said it was not just members of the autistic community who benefited.(ABC News: Stephen Opie)

Although sensory needs around food was a common issue, she said she had not anticipated the demand for a sensory-friendly menu.

Simple changes make ‘such a difference’

Ms Wallis said as a restaurant owner, it could be challenging.

“If you’ve got 200 plus people in your bistro and one meal that’s slightly different, it can be challenging,” she said.

“But from a customer’s perspective, you want to be able to enjoy your experience and have a good time and feel seen and valued and to be able to come again.”

There are hopes quiet dinners could be rolled out more broadly.(ABC News: Stephen Opie)

Ms Wallis said the simplest of changes made “such a difference”, from dimming the lights, to reducing the sound or having a separate room.

“You don’t have to go to the extreme that I have in creating a sensory menu, but even those slightest adjustments can make a real difference,” she said.

Ms Wallis said she was optimistic that pubs and businesses across South Australia would look to host quiet dinners of their own.

“It is so important to feel valued and safe and if we can just make our environment just a bit more welcoming, it’s going to help so many people to flourish,” she said.

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