anxiety,  autism,  family,  motherhood,  teen years

The Restaurant Deal

J compulsively looking at the open kitchen, watching dozens of pizzas coming out of the oven. None of them were ours.

Duane’s was supposed to be a reward for anxiety management this week.

Since middle school, we’ve started this (unstructured) reward system for J to help him manage his behaviour. I say unstructured because it doesn’t involve a chart or points. There’s no consistent requirement for the amount of good behaviour days to earn this reward. It’s pretty much a carrot on a stick. Bribe really. It goes sort of like this: “J, if you can handle your behaviour and anxiety for the week, we can go to a restaurant of your choice. J, if you can handle your behaviour for the next two days, we can go to a restaurant of your choice.”

Sometimes J will come up with the negotiation and say something like, “I really want Dominos Pizza,” and we say something like, “Sure, just make sure you have great days,” and then we both forget about the bargain and he has three or four weeks of great days and then I have a night where I don’t want to make dinner and we end up having Dominos. It’s sort of a hap-hazard type of reward system.

For some reason, however, lately J has had a lot of anxiety (I’m not exactly sure why). We’re a few weeks into the new semester now and he had no problems with the transition to new classes–and he worked so hard during finals. He’s been running outside in freezing temps without having meltdowns and pretty much been an awesome kid. And then, out of nowhere, he had a really anxious week.

Such is anxiety.

We made the restaurant bargain. During this last week, J told us he wanted to “work for Duane’s House of Pizza” and we told him that if he could manage his anxiety to the end of the week, we could make it happen. Monday morning this week was rough, but he managed to pull it together by lunch time and keep it together for the rest of the week.

And then came Saturday.

We decided that going to Duane’s on Saturday would be the best time to cash in on the bribe. We waited for W to get back from her last debate tournament of the year (and forever–hooray!) which ended up being around 5:30. We were all starving but didn’t get out of the door until about 6:00-6:15. Which means we didn’t get to Duane’s until about 6:30.

6:30. Red flag right there, but I totally missed it. 6:30 was already a late start for dinner for J. Yes, we get back from XC and winter running practice late some nights and don’t eat until 6:30 (sometimes later) but there’s always something for J to snack on until dinner. There were no snacks at Duane’s. You just order your pizza and wait. Which shouldn’t be a problem. It takes, what, 15 min to cook a pizza?

Moorhead. We decided to go to the Moorhead Duane’s instead of the Fargo one. We figured it would be less busy. The dining area is much larger, the booths are nicer. A big open kitchen where you can see all the pizzas go in and out of the industrial ovens (red flag right there). It has a very different ambiance than the Moorhead one. When I go to Moorhead (which is right across the Red River from Fargo) I never really feel like I’ve crossed into another state–except when I go to Duane’s in Moorhead. I feel like I’ve stepped into Minnesota when I step into that restaurant. The accents. The folksy conversations all around you. The bear and pine decor. It’s like you’ve stepped into a lake cabin. A far cry from the torn vinyl booths and wobbly tables at the Fargo location. Sure, it’s not the Duane’s we usually go to, but J has never had a problem with that. Duane’s is Duane’s. Food is food. Those things trump all autistic and anxious requirements for the need for sameness.

Just having fun, hanging out. This was about 20 minutes into our wait time.

We waited and waited. J’s eyes were fixed on the open kitchen (let’s be honest, all of our eyes were on that kitchen–we were starving) and every time a pizza came out and didn’t come to our table, J got more and more agitated. We were all starving and annoyed. And J, who has learned over the years how to manage his food panic anxiety really well, forgot everything he learned. He started crying, and yelling, and the three or four other tables of families in the restaurant could see and hear it all (here’s the great thing about the upper midwest–everyone pretends not to see the catastrophe that’s going down. I’ve had a lot less stares here in North Dakota/Minnesota than I ever did when we lived in Illinois and Kansas. You know the judging is still happening. It’s just the “Minnesota nice” approach).

It’s been a long time since J has had a meltdown like this in public, and so Steve and I just kept looking at each other like, “what should we do?” We had sort of forgotten all of our techniques for keeping J calm in a restaurant. We tried letting him look at my Instagram (he loves looking at all the pictures). We tried back scratches. It was -25C outside so we couldn’t go outside and take a breath of fresh air–or even sit in the car and wait. Finally, Steve decided to go to the waitress (who we hadn’t seen in 40 minutes–how did we not know 40 minutes had passed–it was now 7:10) to see what was going on. That seemed to appease J temporarily.

Steve came back to let us know that about 20 minutes ago, they forgot the pizza in the oven and burnt it. For some reason the waitress didn’t get the message to let us know. (Although she saw a 15 year old table crying and yelling at the table that he was starving). The waitress came to our table really quickly to let us know that they were “on it” and that the pizza would be out in 7 minutes.

J always asks for a written message on a “sticky note” that says “I can handle….” It’s like a visual calming strategy for him that he came up with middle school. When he started asking the waitress for a sticky note, she was super confused and so I asked her for a piece of paper instead.

7 minutes. J was fresh into tears again.

I asked the waitress for a piece of paper. She was confused and a little shocked, but said, “sure, whatever you need,” while Steve tried to calmly explain that we were trying to calm our son. She still looked shocked and confused.

This is the moment where you wish you could explain autism and anxiety in 20 seconds or less to someone who has never seen it before. But you can’t. And you wish you could explain your anger of having to wait almost an hour for a pizza–that they screwed up on.

I’ve had people throughout my life ask me what they can do for me in situations like that–friends and strangers. The truth is I don’t know. I want someone to offer to help, but I don’t want to have to tell them or explain how to help. I want people to ignore it, but I want people to help. I want someone who can come to the situation and help solve the problem. I know that a lot of those feelings and actions contradict each other, but I guess I’m having my own panic attack at that time and I’m not thinking straight either. I may look calm, but I’m freaking out inside too.

It ended up being more than 7 minutes, so Steve started playing hangman on the back of J’s calming note to try to keep him distracted.

What I wish would have happened. I wish the waitress would have come and checked in on us. 15 minutes in, 20 minutes in. Yes, my 15 year old is crying and complaining (he wasn’t physical or violent–just crying), and that might be scary to you, but it’s your job as a waitress to check in on every table. Even just to check on drink refills. Sure, there was a communication breakdown between the kitchen and the waitress (it happens, I get it). But I wish she would have offered something while we were waiting for the second pizza (in retrospect, I should have just grabbed some saltines from the salad bar–but I have a clear head now and didn’t in the middle of it).

They gave us the second pizza for free, and the cook was kind and apologetic when he came out with it. We finished that pizza in about 8 minutes and were out. There were no other families in the restaurant when we left. The waitress didn’t say a word to us when we left and we didn’t say anything back.

I get it. Autism meltdowns and panic attacks are embarrassing. Nobody wants to talk about it when it’s happening. Believe me, we all want to hide in a corner when it’s happening. I’m not trying to bad mouth Duane’s (I’m sure we’ll go back in a few months–just to the Fargo location where you can’t see the kitchen) but I just wanted to write a little about the experience so if you have a kid with anxiety issues you know someone else has been there, and if you don’t maybe you won’t be so scared of it when it happens and might be in a better state of mind than the family to help out or offer help.

There’s your little PSA for the week 🙂



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One Comment

  • Marie Cella

    In reading your words, I Got Anxiety!! Not in regards to J, but just because waiting an hour and 10 minutes for pizza on a starving stomach while everyone else is getting their pizza is a go ahead for a breakdown of some sort!!Then BURNING my pizza and forgetting to tell me. You all have developed an amazing level patience. Bravo to Joshua. He’s the hero of the week. ❤️