At a recent tree-lighting celebration in Lake Forest, 6-year-old Max Brown kept trying to run off and pet strangers’ dogs. Max, who has autism spectrum disorder, loves dogs, said his mother, and there were a lot of them at the outdoor event, each one more irresistible than the last.

Max’s parents struggled to keep him in the Santa line, and the noise and excitement left him overstimulated and cranky.

“That was one of those unfortunate experiences of us trying to do a holiday event, and it kind of went downhill quickly,” said his mother, Tanya Brown, 49, of Kenilworth.

The holidays present multiple challenges for the estimated 1 in 40 U.S. children with autism, but this year, local chapters of the Boston-based organization Autism Eats are stepping into the breach with two Chicago-area holiday dinners – both featuring Santa – that are specifically designed for kids with autism and their families.

The events will be in private rooms at family-friendly restaurants, where participants can eat buffet-style, so no one has to wait for food. Santa will be attuned to the needs of children who may have trouble making eye contact, waiting in line, interpreting social cues or cozying up to even the jolliest old elf.

“Santa’s going to get prepped,” Autism Eats founder Lenard Zohn said with a chuckle.

“Santa’s going to know that some of the kids might be nonverbal and not be able to express themselves if he asks, ‘What would you like for Christmas?’ Santa will engage them or make some suggestions or lead the conversation. Some kids might not want to sit on Santa’s lap, and that’s OK. Santa will know that he can kneel down next to them.”

Tanya Brown, who organized the Dec. 1 holiday dinner at Hackney’s on Lake restaurant, said that a representative from sensory-friendly Spectrum Toy Store brought  playthings, such as squeeze toys, and food choices for the kids included sliders, mac ’n’ cheese and chicken fingers.

The Dec. 16 dinner will be held at Edison Park Inn. Reservations are required. The cost per person ranges from $5 to $26, depending on age and venue.

Autism Eats hosts restaurant brunches and dinners in private rooms, so kids with autism and their families can enjoy the experience of eating out without feeling they have to explain unusual behaviors, such arm-flapping, chattering in nonsense words or leaving the table to wander around immediately after eating. By the end of the December, Autism Eats will have hosted close to 100 events in about 20 states, according to Zohn. The first Chicago holiday dinner was held last year.

Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that affects communication, social interaction and behavior. An estimated 1 in 40 U.S. children have the disorder, according to a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.

Max sometimes finds it hard to read nonverbal cues, and he’s a very active kid, his mother said.

“(These kids) tend to fixate on a certain thing, so in the case of my son, it’s the alphabet, for as long as he can remember,” she said. “So he has the ability to spell words way beyond what many of his peers are doing. These children are very highly intelligent; their needs are just different from a neurotypical child – how they take in information.”

The Lake Forest tree-lighting outing was successful in some ways; Max did get to see Santa, and he was happy about that. But Brown sees the Autism Eats event as a better fit.

“We’re very much looking forward to it,” she said.

Information about the holiday dinners is at www.autismeats.org/events.html. Some scholarships are available; if you’re interested ask for financial help via the contact form at the website.