Community News

Illinois Boy, 9, Bangs Gong To Ring In Autism Awareness Month

March 31, 2023

NAPERVILLE, IL — There are few things that can stand between Maddox Yates-Benter, 9, and banging the gong at BD's Mongolian Grill in Naperville. Maddox's fathers have driven more than an hour just for Maddox, who is on the autism spectrum, to ring the gong. This pure delight in a simple gong bang reverberated to inspire a string of resonant events that led to Maddox banging the gong Friday to officially ring in the start of Autism Awareness Month.

Dozens of people attended the event at BD's Mongolian Grill as the restaurant chain pledged to match $50,000 in donations to the Organization for Autism Research (OAR) on Maddox's behalf.

How this milestone moment for Maddox came to be is where the real magic lies. Maddox's dads, Patrick and Joey Benter-Dalton, told Patch it all started one day last year when Maddox insisted the family make the hour-long drive from their home in Sandwich to BD's Mongolian Grill in Naperville.

"Maddox is happy"

"Maddox is in love with BD’s Mongolian Grill," Patrick told Patch, "but primarily because he loves hitting the gong. When we do take him we make a big deal of it."

So, the family piled into their car and drove to Naperville, only to encounter a sign saying the restaurant was closed that day.

“Maddox is autistic; he doesn’t understand why places aren’t open when they are supposed to be," Patrick explained.

So the family called BD's Mongolian Grill and spoke with General Manager Kirsten Simmons, who told them there was a water main break that temporarily shuttered the restaurant.

Patrick asked, Simmons, "Do you think, by any chance, our son can come in and hit your gong real quick? He doesn’t want to eat. We just want to hit your gong."

Simmons was not only happy to comply, she told the family about a nearby BD's Mongolian Grill in Bolingbrook and gave them discount vouchers.

“He had free reign on that gong for over 20 minutes," Patrick said, explaining he and Joey later left a review raving about the experience.

“Nobody takes the time to compliment people," Patrick said. "Rarely do people go online to praise people up."

A month later, the vice president of marketing at BD's Mongolian Grill invited Maddox and his dads and Simmons and her family to dinner, surprising them all with an expenses-paid trip to Disney World.

“It was really magical watching [Maddox] light up the way he did to meeting his favorite 'Frozen' stars and Mickey and Minnie," Patrick said.

The night the family learned about their surprise Disney trip, the 9-year-old beamed, "Maddox is happy."

That seemingly simple three-word phrase seemed to resound with its import, Joe explained. Maddox had been nonverbal for years, but the pair had seen him make significant strides over the five years or so.

“Not only are we very 'Papa Bear' protective, but we get so excited when we see these huge milestones, which are more endearing because of his own excitement for his own achievements."

Meeting Maddox was a turning point for BD's Mongolian Grill as well. Inspired by their interactions with him, the corporate team at BD's Mongolian Grill then began brainstorming ways they could help raise funds and help spread awareness of autism.

Ultimately, they joined forces with OAR to commit to a matching donation pledge and to make Maddox a representative for Autism Awareness Month.

"Accomplishing something bigger than yourself"

On Thursday, Patrick, Joey and Maddox were driving home from their spring break vacation in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Their next adventure was set for Friday morning, when BD's Mongolian Grill welcomed Maddox to ring the gong.

As Patch's editor spoke with the family over their car speaker, the excitement in the car was not only palpable, it was infectious. Maddox laughed and squealed with joy as soon as Patrick picked up the phone. Also palpable was the pride coming through the lines from Patrick and Joey.

"It’s overwhelming the amount of gratitude we have to be part of something," Patrick said.

Joey explained that he hopes increasing people's awareness of autism also brings an increase in their compassion for and understanding of autism.

“I think it’s great that BD's Mongolian Grill has given us this platform to talk about and give awareness for autism," Joey said.

He explained that it's easy for others to make assumptions about children with autism, and that people sometimes mistake a sensory meltdown for a tantrum. Patrick added that he and Joey can't help but notice the looks from others when they are in public and Maddox is experiencing a sensory meltdown.

Patrick hopes increased autism awareness will encourage an eventual shift in acceptance."If you could change the mind of just one person to be more patient and understanding, you’ve accomplished something bigger than yourself.”

And "accomplishing something much bigger than yourself" is something Maddox has done his whole life, just by being himself.

“Having a child like Maddox has really humbled Joey and me to be more patient ourselves or be more understanding of others," Patrick said. "Maddox has taught Joey and me to be better people."

Friday morning, Maddox ran into BD's Mongolian Grill with the same uncontained exuberance he always has when he knows he's going to bang his beloved gong.

Like always, Maddox barreled past other guests to reach the gong, ringing it multiple times well before the official ceremonial gong ring.

"He had to warm up," Patrick joked.

For a boy who finds the utmost joy in the smallest things in life, every day is monumental. This day, though, an entire community got to see how one small thing —the bang of a gong— could be at the center of awakening others need to inspire the understanding and love that reverberates deep within us all.

Patrick said, "It’s so meaningful that this little act of kindness took a life of its own."

How to Show Your Support

Throughout April, residents can make donations of $1 or more to OAR and arrange to get their name posted at one of the 18 BD Mongolian Grills throughout the U.S. Diners can also add a donation amount when they order, 100 percent of which will go to benefit OAR. Click the link to make a donation to OAR to help with autism research.

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