Even in the wide world of restaurants, there are very few places like Chuck E. Cheese’s, those caverns of mayhem where mobs of children come to play video games, crawl through Skytubes and scarf down pizza amid the cacophony of beeping sounds, screaming toddlers and the music from Chuck E.’s band powering through a set on stage. Every year, some 40 million kids pile into the restaurants to relish in this sensory overload.
Which, for many other kids, is exactly the trouble.
If you’re the parent of a child with autism spectrum disorder, a Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant is the last place you’d ever want to go. Already sensitive to bright lights and noises, children on the spectrum would be greatly bothered by an average afternoon at Chuck’s.
That fact greatly bothered Ami Anderson, CEC’s senior director for advertising and media. “For a place [whose slogan is] ‘Where a kid can be a kid,’ we realized that a lot of kids couldn’t be kids there,” she said.
At least, not until last month, when CEC Entertainment announced the national rollout of Sensory Sensitive Sundays. Held the first Sunday of each month, the events take place during a two-hour window before the restaurants open to the general public. During that time, staffers dim the lights, kill the music and unplug the famous animatronic stage show (that’s right: no Chuck) to achieve “an environment more suitable for children who face sensory challenges,” according to the company.
While brands have been slowly learning to cater to disabled populations (McDonald’s ran a TV spot starring Mike Sewell, who had Down syndrome, in 1991), they’ve been far slower to awaken to people on the autism spectrum—who in America number some 3.5 million.
In the case of Chuck E. Cheese’s, while credit goes to headquarters for green-lighting Sensory Sensitive Sundays nationally, the idea originated at a single store. Earlier this year, Amanda Moniz, an outreach coordinator for the Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD), wandered into the Chuck E. Cheese’s in Attleboro, Mass., with a request: “Would you be willing to open two hours early for my nephew, who has autism?”
“We’ll go to a local business and [ask if they’d] be open to offering a sensory-friendly time to kids who might be on the spectrum,” relates CARD’s business development manager, Micah Miller, who explained that her outreach worker really does have a nephew on the spectrum.
Surprisingly enough, the restaurant went for it, and the first Sunday generated an enormous amount of positive attention—so much so that the CEC head office in Irving, Texas, got wind of it. “I found out through a newspaper write-up,” Anderson said. “I reached out to the store and said, ‘What’s going on? This is great.’”
Anderson’s advocacy helped persuade CEC to test the autism events regionally in New England, at 54 stores. Then the brass gave the OK for a national rollout.
For CARD, a national organization dedicated to treatment, there’s “not a lot of gain” to having a pizza chain cater to autistic kids, Miller said, apart from “just making it a better world for these children.” (Which is no small thing, of course.)
But for Chuck E. Cheese’s, there are tangible benefits. It’s not measured in receipts: poor weather and an ill-timed coincidence with the Super Bowl has made it hard to gauge the real bottom-line benefits. But Anderson stresses that the positive feedback the chain has gotten more than justify the effort.
“It was the right thing to do,” she said, adding that “the feedback is overwhelming. I had one customer say, ‘We drove 45 minutes, and I’ll be here every month because it was such a positive experience.’ ”
While Chuck E. Cheese’s (which reported $265 million in revenue for Q1) wasn’t looking to appeal to families with autistic children as a formal initiative, a store in Attleboro, Mass., generated so much attention by holding its own Sensory Sensitive Sundays that headquarters recognized the opportunity to go national in time for World Autism Awareness Day on April 2, 2017.
Trouble was, they had just six weeks. “It was a herculean effort,” said Anderson, adding that the cooperation of groups like CARD and Autism Speaks made a big difference. CARD trained restaurant employees on how to work with autistic kids, while also spreading the word through its network. Autism Speaks posted a notice of the event on its Facebook page.
Though it’s too early to tell if Sensory Sensitive Sundays will result in bottom-line benefits, it’s generated a great deal of positive attention, in addition to new customers who couldn’t have come before. What’s more, Anderson said, the monthly events have been a surprising morale boost. “It’s added a new level of passion to our employees,” she said, “and our guests.”