(WHDH) — No matter how much is on their plate, people living with autism or caring for someone with the disorder are welcome at this dinner party.

Elda Collado’s son is living with autism. She says, “I feel relaxed, calm, like everyone’s acceptable.” On this evening, they are simply going out to eat.

Lenard Zohn is the founder of Autism Eats.

“You don’t have to explain any behaviors, you don’t have to apologize for anything, you don’t have to make excuses. You can really just sit back and enjoy the night,” said Zohn.

Lenard and Delphine Zohn, of Andover, said they used to love dining out, untl their son Adin, who is on the autism spectrum, got overwhelmed by the experience.

“Adin is not good at waiting for a table, waiting for a server, waiting for a menu, waiting for the food to come, waiting for the check at the end of the meal,” said Zohn.

The family stopped doing dinner out and found they really missed it. So four years ago, they came up with “Autism Eats.” They pair up with area restaurants, this time Maggiano’s in the Back Bay, and take up a section of the space. Then, they train wait staff on how to deal with customers with autism. They adjust the lighting and music to accommodate sensory issues. And serve the food buffet style — paid for in advance, to avoid any wait.

The need to feed one family has spread, with 75,000 people in Massachusetts living with autism. So this program has not only grown in the state but nationwide. Now, 16 states have started similar programs.

“What it comes down to is people want to feel comfortable. People want to feel connected,” said Zohn.

And that’s what this program taps into — connection. Felt by those living with autism, like 17-year old Needham High School senior Jillian Cotell.

“For me, it’s like a great time, she says. “To see other autistic kids. I’m not alone.”

And for her parents.

“It’s nice to get a different perspective. When your child has a meltdown leaving the library, how did you handle it? You can share those experiences and support one another,” said Richard Cotell.

A recent Autism Eats event attracted 110 people, who heard about it online, through schools or their doctors. Organizers hope to raise enough money so that every family wants to dine with Autism Eats can come, whether they can afford to or not.

For more information and how to donate: http://www.autismeats.org/

(Copyright (c) 2021 Sunbeam Television. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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