Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), privately owned businesses are prohibited from discriminating against individuals with disabilities, including their service animals.
So when Nathan was denied service at a local restaurant because of his service dog Sylvia, he decided to put a bad experience to good use.
"We wanted to use this as an opportunity to spread awareness,” he said. “Spread awareness about autistic service dogs, spread awareness about autism."
The night they were denied service, Nathan’s friend had called ahead earlier to let the restaurant know they were bringing a service dog.
“My girlfriend had just turned 18, and wanted to go somewhere that you’d had to be 18 to get in,” said Nathan.
While it’s not necessary to call ahead, because of the
“[My friend] told me [the host] sounded confused, and no dogs were allowed at the restaurant,” said Nathan.
Upon hearing this, Nathan immediately called his dad Ramon for advice. Ramon also suffers from Asperger’s, which doctors say is a genetic condition, and after seeing Nathan’s success with Sylvia, got a service dog of his own.
"I told him to be sure to print out the brochure that gave information. And as a way to help him keep control, and to not have a meltdown when someone denies him access, I suggested that he have his girlfriend roll the camera,” said Ramon.
Asbergers syndrome can cause people with autism like Nathan to lose their temper and sometimes literally run away from a situation. In order to combat those emotions, his parents enrolled him in acting classes, which helped him channel his intense energy. Ramon knew the camera would force Nathan to be responsible for his actions.
“It’s not unusual that we have to educate someone about service dogs....Usually we give them a brochure, explain the situation and then they understand,” said Shellie, Nathan’s mother and Ramon’s wife. “But every once in awhile, we’ll run into a problem.”
And that’s what happened to Nathan. After being denied service, he and his girlfriend decided to put the video on the internet explaining what happened, showing the incident, and include closing remarks.
"I figured its Autism Awareness Month, so people would probably jump on board,” said Nathan, with a shrug. “That's when the hate comments started."
Social media users lit up Nathan’s video on YouTube and Reddit with a slew of negative comments. Many claimed Nathan couldn't be autistic because he didn't look autistic. They said, Sylvia was a fake service dog, and even went after his girlfriend's appearance.
"Just because we look normal doesn't mean we're not different, and just because we're different doesn't mean we're inferior,” said Nathan.
"People need to know that while autism is a serious disability, it's not everything about a person,” said his father.
Nathan has pushed the viral campaign to the side for now to focus on finals, but the fight to raise awareness isn't over.