Ear muffs might seem like an odd thing to offer a guest at a restaurant, but for people with sensory sensitivity, those ear coverings might be the perfect recipe for a successful meal out.

Sensory sensitivity — a sign of autism — can affect every aspect of a person’s life, including the ability to eat at a restaurant.

For families with a child with autism or sensory sensitivity, the smells and noises in a restaurant can overwhelm sensory receptors, leading to stress and anxiety for all involved.

A new initiative hosted by Mary’s Pizza Shack now offers families an inclusive, welcoming place where they can enjoy a meal knowing they have access to tools to help soften sensory stimuli.

Santa Rosa-based nonprofit Anova and the regional pizza restaurant chain recently launched a pilot program offering Sensory Friendly Kits.

“We are thrilled to be able to partner with Anova on this initiative,” said Stefanie Bagala, director of marketing at Mary’s Pizza Shack, which has a restaurant at 3085 Jefferson St. in Napa among its 20 locations.

“It’s important to us that our guests with autism and sensory sensitivities know they have a place where they can feel comfortable,” she said.

As a nonprofit service provider of education and therapy to hundreds of children with autism, “We witness so many families choosing not to dine out or enjoy many activities because of the overwhelming challenges involved,” said Andrew Bailey, co-founder of Anova.

“We want to turn that around by equipping restaurants such as Mary’s Pizza Shack with tools that will help create a stress-free dining environment for those families in need.”

The Sensory Friendly Kits, available upon request to use for free while dining, include noise reduction ear muffs, a three-pound weighted lap pad and several toys to help promote a more calming environment. Items are cleanable and stored in a box.

Many people who struggle with sensory issues have an unregulated sensory system, the company explained. The body doesn’t know how to process the information it’s taking in, such as too much noise, smells, light, and the feel of certain things.

Items like the ones included in the Sensory Friendly Kit keep the part of their brain that is being bombarded with sensory stimuli busy and calm, and help to regulate their sensory system, reduce anxiety, and have better focus and concentration, the company said.

Noise reduction ear muffs have a 26 decibel noise reduction rating. They can help with concentration by blocking out loud background noise, while still allowing wearers to hear someone speaking to them.

Weighted lap pads helps to release tension while promoting calmness when feeling overwhelmed or experiencing restlessness.

Squeeze toys and a liquid motion timer can relieve stress and help with focus, anger and anxiety management.

A printed “zone” scale chart helps a child who is non-verbal or has difficulty communicating feelings. Green is happy and calm, and yellow, orange, and red are escalating states of feeling overwhelmed.

It costs Anova about $30 to assemble each box, said Jackie Hadley, a spokeswoman for Anova, Inc. Two kits are provided at no cost to each restaurant.

According to 2014 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism currently affects 1 in 68 children and 1 in 42 boys.

Anova has also provided sensory training to the Mary’s staff at all locations.

Founded in 2000, Anova is a provider of education and behavioral therapy services for children and teens diagnosed with autism, learning differences, and other neuro-developmental impairments.

Anova’s three nonprofit K-12 schools located in Santa Rosa, San Rafael, and Concord provide specialized services. The nonprofit also provides paraprofessional support in public schools, and in-home services within 15 counties across California, the company said.

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Business Editor

Jennifer Huffman is the business editor and a general assignment reporter for the Napa Valley Register. I cover a wide variety of topics for the newspaper. I've been with the Register since 2005.