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Ben Brewer, Deseret News
Taryn Nielsen, left, helps her autistic son, Spencer, press a piece of pizza dough during lunch at BRIO Tuscan Grille in Murray on Friday, Nov. 9, 2012. The restaurant hosted a special lunch for families with autistic children to train employees how to handle issues pertaining to the condition.
I don't like going around telling everyone that my son has special needs, but going someplace where they are used to it and can handle it will make it more normal for us. —Cobilynn Dickinson

MURRAY — Hagen Dickinson took in as much of his surroundings as he could bear Friday.

The bright lights, fancy décor and plethora of attention directed at him was almost too much for the 4-year-old autistic boy, as he clung tightly to his mother's hand and then made his way into her arms.

The staff at BRIO Tuscan Grille, however, did all they could to make him and four other autistic children and their mothers feel comfortable while enjoying a lunch date.

"I've never dealt with autism personally, so I really don't understand it," said Steve Rose, BRIO's general manager. "But they're really no different than kids we have ourselves. They just need a little bit of special attention to have a great experience."

Rose said he wants the restaurant to be a safe, comfortable environment for everyone — no exceptions.

The Fashion Place Mall location is one of the first establishments in Utah to earn the Autism AWARE status, meaning it has trained employees and can provide an environment to accommodate families with autistic children in an atmosphere where autism is welcomed, accepted and respected.

"I don't like going around telling everyone that my son has special needs, but going someplace where they are used to it and can handle it will make it more normal for us," said Cobilynn Dickinson, Hagen's mom.

"These are incredible kids," she said. "We need the opportunity to get them to grow and reach their potential."

Autism is a mental condition that produces a range of abilities and disabilities in each individual who has it. It can be limiting, especially in social situations. Sights, sounds, smells and textures can provoke out-of-the-blue responses from individuals with autism, and "you never know when you're going to have a meltdown," said Amy Baker, mother of two children with autism spectrum disorder.

Baker said she wishes the general public wasn't "so quick to judge."

"If we take them away from the situation, they will not learn," she said. "We have to fight through it and would love more support than the look that we're not doing our job as parents."

Baker wouldn't typically think of BRIO as a child-friendly place, but she was pleasantly surprised when servers helped her sons, Braden, 7, and Bryson, 8, make their own pizzas at the restaurant's brick oven.

"People are willing to help, and they are generally kind. They're not out to get you," said Cheryl Smith, president of the Autism Council of Utah and mother of Carson Smith, who has autism. "They just don't have the education or the know-how to deal with something like this, and a lot of the time, neither do we."

With one in 47 Utah children diagnosed somewhere on the autism spectrum, more families are facing the challenges of socailizing outside their homes or schools. The council is hoping to work with restaurants, businesses, salons, banks and other locations that families in general tend to frequent with their children.

Any establishments interested in participating can contact the all-volunteer council online at www.autismcouncilofutah.org.

The hope is to generate awareness of the widespread condition and make it easier on parents who are trying their best with an already difficult situation.

"We need the experiences to be able to educate our children how to behave in public, but also to educate the community how to accept our children," Smith said.

The AWARE program, she said, is a step in the right direction to a more informed statewide populace.

"There is nothing like being with people who get it," Smith said, adding that a more blatant approach involves putting a T-shirt on her 14-year-old son that reads: "I have autism. Be nice to my mom."

Rose said he wants BRIO to be a place people and families can trust. He said a handful of servers will be trained to handle families with special requests, whether it be a quieter place to sit, a specialized menu or extra time to explain the menu and processes to their kids.

There's also the prospect of enhanced business in it for him.

"Once a family with special needs finds a place they feel comfortable going, they will be a customer for a long time," Baker said. "And they are usually part of a big network of families that all face similar issues, so they will get the word out."

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com

Twitter: wendyleonards