A 9-year-old boy with autism and his service dog were told to leave a McDonald’s because an employee insisted the service dog was a pet.
On a Sunday afternoon, Shane Wheeler needed to grab food for his 9-year-old son, Noah, and 7-year-old daughter, Samantha, before dropping them off at their mom’s. Both the children have autism, and Noah has a service dog named Nitro who goes everywhere with him.
The family of three plus Nitro headed inside the McDonald’s in Bombay, an area of Auckland, New Zealand, to order dinner. Noah is very particular about the food he eats, but he really likes the chicken nuggets at McDonald’s.
While Wheeler was selecting their orders at the self-order kiosk, he was approached by a staff member who told him that pets weren’t allowed.
Wheeler assured the employee that Nitro was a service dog, and pointed out Nitro’s grey vest that clearly had the words “Assistance Dog” on it.
Noah sometimes tries to run off without warning, which can be dangerous if he happens to run into the road or a parking lot. Nitro keeps Noah from doing this, but also does an excellent job of keeping him calm. The family has had Nitro for three years now, and as Noah has gotten older, he’s begun to rely on Nitro more heavily for comfort and security, and less so for things like running off, as he’s started to outgrow the impulse.
“The calming side has become much more important,” Wheeler told the New Zealand Herald. “So, like, he will grab on to Nitro, ’cause there’s a handle thing he can grab onto on the jacket, and he’ll hold Nitro, and it’s a comfort thing for him. Without Nitro, I wouldn’t be able to get Noah to half these places. He just wouldn’t be able to go.”
Noah was holding on to the Nitro’s lead while the conversation between Wheeler and the employee was happening. Wheeler spent a couple minutes trying to get the employee to understand that Nitro was an assistance dog and not a pet, but the worker simply kept repeating that pets weren’t allowed.
Frustrated, embarrassed, and upset, Wheeler ushered his children and Nitro out the door — and went to a McDonald’s nearby in Mercer.
“I just went through the drive through there. I wasn’t brave enough to go inside, not after all that,” Wheeler said. “I didn’t want to go to the next one, but my autistic son wanted chicken nuggets and I had to get over my ego and hurt feelings and do what he needs and makes him okay.”
This was the first time in the three years that Nitro has been with the family that they’ve been asked to leave an establishment.
The family raised money to get Nitro from Assistance Dogs New Zealand to help Noah, and he has been an important part of the family since then.
Wheeler spoke up about his experience to raise awareness about the value of service dogs and the needs of those on the spectrum.
McDonald’s has apologized and said that their policy is to serve customers with service animals. They said they will follow up with their staff and also reach out to Wheeler about the incident.