IMAX'd Out: Kids With Autism Get Big-Screen Break

Toy Story 3 i i

hide captionYou've Got A Friend In Me: The Autism Society responded to the story of one Maryland family by reaching out to a major movie-theater chain and helping to design a low-key cinema experience (featuring popular movies like Toy Story 3) for autistic moviegoers who might otherwise be overwhelmed.

Disney/Pixar
Toy Story 3

You've Got A Friend In Me: The Autism Society responded to the story of one Maryland family by reaching out to a major movie-theater chain and helping to design a low-key cinema experience (featuring popular movies like Toy Story 3) for autistic moviegoers who might otherwise be overwhelmed.

Disney/Pixar

Today's mainstream movie experience can be big, bold and loud — driven by 3-D, IMAX and surround-sound technologies and designed to immerse audiences in a fictional world.

But that can sometimes be too much for children with autism, who can have difficulty communicating, reading social cues and tolerating sensory stimulation others take for granted — everything from attending a birthday party to going to the movies.

Renee Hill says the huge screen, darkened room and loud soundtrack often overwhelm her 4-year-old son, Weston, who otherwise loves watching videos.

"You'll constantly notice him look uncomfortable and cover his ears, but if he really gets overwhelmed, then he'll just shut down and have a meltdown and start to cry," Hill explains.

As the national rate of autism diagnoses climbs, parents and advocates have persuaded some theaters to tone it down. A number of theaters across the country now hold sensory-friendly movie showings to accommodate those with autism: The house lights stay on, the sound remains low, and there are no ads or previews before films. The screenings are beginning to catch on.

The sensory-friendly trend started two years ago, after a Maryland mother got kicked out of a movie theater when her autistic daughter became overwhelmed and disruptive during a showing of Hairspray. The mom got in touch with the Autism Society, a national advocacy group, which in turn contacted the AMC theaters chain about offering a low-key movie option once a month.

AMC Theater i i

hide captionCatering To The Crowd: Autism-friendly movie screenings are now monthly occurrences in 124 AMC outlets, along with a few dozen other theaters, nationwide. AMC's "Silence is Golden" rule is relaxed at these screenings, where theaters are less dark and soundtracks play at a lower volume.

AMC Entertainment
AMC Theater

Catering To The Crowd: Autism-friendly movie screenings are now monthly occurrences in 124 AMC outlets, along with a few dozen other theaters, nationwide. AMC's "Silence is Golden" rule is relaxed at these screenings, where theaters are less dark and soundtracks play at a lower volume.

AMC Entertainment

AMC spokeswoman Cindy Huffstickler says the company agreed to a trial run in 10 markets. She says the screenings generate enough demand for the theaters to profit from them — and now the company is scheduling regular sensory-friendly screenings in 124 AMC multiplexes nationwide.

"We were taking a leap of faith," Huffstickler says. "The reason we did it is because we knew it was the right thing to do, but we have not been let down. It has been wildly successful."

Meanwhile, the Autism Society's Marguerite Colston says parents see moviegoing as a gateway to more mainstream activities, and a chance for their children to be more social.

"When the child with autism goes back to school and the friends without autism are talking about the latest movie, this is the first step in really socializing with them," Colston says.

This has proven somewhat true for Kelley St. Clair, who recently took her 5-year-old son, Mikey, to a matinee screening of Toy Story 3. Mikey made it through half of the movie — which was longer than St. Clair expected. Even though he ended up running in front of the screen and yelling, the audience was forgiving, and he seemed happy.

So the following week, St. Clair took Mikey to his first birthday party.

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