Trips to the movies can be far more stressful than entertaining for many children with autism. The loud noises, big flashing images, and sudden change in lighting can be over stimulating— resulting in excessive excitement or anxiousness— and often times their reactions are met with glares and murmurs from fellow patrons who mistake their responses as “bad behavior.”
April is National Autism Awareness month. A year ago, in order to offer improved viewing experiences for kids with autism and their families, AMC Entertainment and the Autism Society teamed up to create “sensory friendly” movie screenings. The program is growing quickly. Initially sensory friendly screenings only occurred in a handful of theaters; now over 90 AMC cinemas throughout the country are participating.
“Some children with ASDs (autism spectrum disorders) can be quite sensitive to certain sensory stimuli and can be over-interested in, afraid of, or have an unusual reaction to the sight, sound, taste or feel of things,” says Ellen Hanson, PhD , a staff psychologist and lead researcher specializing in ASDs at Children’s Hospital Boston. “This means that a place that is big, loud, dark, unfamiliar or different from what they are used to can be very overwhelming and trigger certain reactions or behaviors which are sometimes seen as ‘inappropriate’ by people who do not understand the disorder.”
The over-stimulation can be hard on parents too, who are caught between wanting to help their child and doing their best to not disturb other viewers. “Some families decide to limit or completely avoid situations such as movie theaters,” says Hanson. “There is too much of a chance that their child may be misunderstood or their child may impact the ability of other patrons to watch the movie.”
But thanks to events like AMC’s sensory friendly screenings, autistic children can see newly released films in a public environment, without the fear of being singled out for their behavior. And, as Hanson points out, there are additional benefits to sensory friendly screenings outside of a stress free trip to the cinema. “It sounds like it could be a nice way to interact with other peers and families of peers with ASD,” she says. “For some children it could be a great way to practice appropriate ‘outing’ behaviors; it could be a good teaching tool.”
Hanson notes that the creation of these types of screenings, and their growing popularity, signify not only a shift in the public’s expanding understanding and acceptance of autism, but also the power of advocacy and perseverance by the parents of autistic children who worked to get events like sensory friendly movies implemented.
Currently there is only one AMC theater in Massachusetts hosting sensory friendly screenings, but Thrive encourages parents who’d like to organize sensory friendly screenings in their own community to speak with other interested families, draft petitions and talk to management of their local theaters.
National consciousness starts with community acceptance, and sensory friendly movies could be a great way for the families of autistic kids to come together to raise awareness and promote a better understanding of the disorder— and maybe see a good movie or two in the process.
What do you think? Like the idea of starting a sensory friendly movie day in your town? Have you successfully set up a sensory friendly screening or similar event? Thrive wants to know about it! Please scroll down to our comments section and share your stories, ideas and support for sensory friendly movie screenings and the great people who make them happen.