Movie Theater Program Makes Autism a Family Affair
For many people, going to a movie theater to see a show is a family affair. However, if you have a child with autism spectrum disorder, taking the entire family to a movie is likely not on your “to do” list. That is, unless you go to see Sensory Friendly Films.
Movie theaters can be scary places
The dark, cave-like environment and ear-shattering audio, along with the no-outside-food and no-talking policies of movie theaters, make a family outing at a movie theater an impossible mission for individuals who have an autistic child.
But what if you could go to a movie theater where it’s not so dark, the sound isn’t too loud, you can bring along your own gluten-free, casein-free treats, and it’s okay to talk, laugh, and get up and walk around. Does that sound like a movie experience your family could enjoy?
There is such an experience. The Sensory Friendly Films program is a joint venture between the Autism Society and AMC Theatres. Once a month, individuals who have a child affected by autism spectrum disorder have a place they can go as a family to see a movie in a safe, accepting environment if they are near one of the more than 150 AMC Theatres around the country that offers the films.
History of the Sensory Friendly Films program
According to Cindy Huffstickler, Community Relations Manager for AMC, the Sensory Friendly Films program started in 2007 when a mother in Columbia, Maryland, took her nine-year-old daughter, who had autism spectrum disorder, to a Monday afternoon matinee performance to see “Hairspray” at a local theater.
The mother, who was an active member of her local Autism Society chapter, had chosen a Monday matinee because attendance was light. When the theater lights went down and the sound went up, her daughter became distressed, and other theatergoers complained to the management. Both mother and daughter were asked to leave the theater.
Being asked to leave the movie theater turned out to be the seed of the idea behind Sensory Friendly Films. Huffstickler related how the mother approached the general manager at her local AMC theater (which was not the theater she was asked to leave) and explained the need for a movie experience for children with autism; that is, the theater should not be too dark, the sound should be kept low, and the children should be allowed to vocalize as needed.
The general manager agreed, and within months the first screening of a movie for children with autism and their families was held. More than 300 people came to that first event. By August 2008, the idea had spread beyond the one AMC theater in Columbia, Maryland, until today 158 theaters participate in the Sensory Friendly Films program, which involves 64 markets across the United States. (See a list of participating AMC theaters.)
The family films are typically shown on Saturday mornings at 10 AM, although an occasional evening show has been offered. All the movies chosen are rated either G or PG13, and they include the latest releases. The next movie, “Mirror Mirror,” will be shown on Saturday, April 7, followed by “Pirates! Band of Misfits” on May 5 and “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” on June 16.
According to Amanda Glensky, Outreach Specialist for the Autism Society, these monthly family movie experiences have been very well received. "Many families have told us this is the first time they can go to a movie together," she said during a phone interview. She also explained that the Sensory Friendly Films events also give children with autism an opportunity to practice social skills and to make friends, and for families with autistic children to meet others who share their experiences.
Children with autism spectrum disorder
The latest statistics on autism spectrum disorder from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that prevalence of autism is 1 in every 110 births in the United States, and nearly 1 in 70 boys. That translates into about 1.5 million Americans who are living with the effects of autism.
The range and severity of symptoms and behaviors associated with autism spectrum disorder are highly variable. Some typical behaviors include avoiding eye contact, repeating words or phrases over and over, getting upset by minor changes in their environment or routine, obsessive interests, repetitive motions such as spinning or rocking, hyperactivity, impulsivity, short attention span, and unusual reactions to the way things feel, sound, smell, taste, and look.
Families that are affected by autism spectrum disorder face challenges from many segments of society. The opportunity to share a time-honored family event such as going to a movie theater with their children is generally not an option unless they can find a safe, accepting movie-going experience like that offered by the Sensory Friendly Film program.
AMC Theatres/Cindy Huffstickler, AMC Community Relations Manager
Autism Society/Amanda Glensky, Outreach Specialist
Image source: Wikipedia