IMAX'd Out: Kids With Autism Get Big-Screen Break WFCR's Karen Brown reports on low-key moviegoing experiences designed especially to accommodate young film fans with autism -- and thus a heightened sensitivity to noise and other stimuli. Theaters across the country hold these special screenings, pioneered by the AMC Theaters chain and the Autism Society.

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

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The mainstream movie experience these days, with 3-D, IMAX and surround-sound, can be just a bit too much for children with autism. As the national rate of autism diagnosis has climbed, parents and advocates have persuaded some theaters to tone it down. From member station WFCR in Amherst, Karen Brown reports.

KAREN BROWN: Kelley St. Clair walks into this matinee of "Toy Story 3" holding the hand of her five-year-old boy, who has autism.

Ms. KELLEY ST. CLAIR: Mikey, this is the movie.

BROWN: Mikey's eyes are darting around the fluorescent lit lobby. Like most of the children here, Mikey is on his first trip to a movie theater.

Ms. ST. CLAIR: We heard about this and we think it's a great opportunity to give him a chance to try it out and have some success in a place where people really understand what he's all about.

BROWN: That includes difficulty communicating, reading social cues and tolerating sensory stimulation that others take for granted - anything from birthday parties to the supermarket to the movies.

Ms. RENEE HILL: Between the huge screen and the lights off and the sound so loud, it's very overwhelming, even for typical people.

BROWN: Renee Hill has a four-year-old autistic son who loves watching videos. But all her previous efforts to take him to the cinema have ended prematurely.

Ms. HILL: You'll just 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.

BROWN: But for this special screening the house lights are on, the sound is low and there are no ads or previews. It's called a sensory-friendly movie showing. And as an autism accommodation, it's catching on. This packed event is a first for Cinemark manager Dave Meduno(ph), who takes cues from the audience.

Mr. DAVE MEDUNO (Manager, Cinemark): We're going to have the volume at three and a half, which is much lower than it ever normally is. If you need it lower or if you need it a tad higher, just let us know and enjoy the movie. Thank you.

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of music)

BROWN: As the movie gets underway, families peek up and down the aisles, eat special dietary snacks from home, and no one tries to shush the overexcited children.

Unidentified Child #1: Oh my gosh. It's a movie. This is so exciting. (Unintelligible)

BROWN: The sensory-friendly trend started two years ago, after a mom in Maryland got kicked out of a movie theater when her autistic daughter became overwhelmed and disruptive at a showing of "Hairspray." The mom got in touch with the Autism Society, a national advocacy group, which in turn contacted the AMC theater chain about offering a low-key movie option once a month. AMC spokeswoman Cindy Huffstickler says the company agreed to a trial run in 10 markets.

Ms. CINDY HUFFSTICKLER (Spokeswoman, AMC Theaters): We were taking a leap of faith. The reason why we did it was because we knew it was the right thing to do. But we have not been let down. It has been wildly successful.

BROWN: Autism-friendly screenings are now in 124 AMC theaters nationwide, and a few dozen other cinemas. Huffstickler says there's enough demand that theaters even make money.

Marguerite Colston of the Autism Society says parents see moviegoing as a gateway to more mainstream activities.

Ms. MARGUERITE COLSTON: And it also has that social aspect. When the child with autism goes back to school and the friends without autism are talking about the latest movie, this is the first time, the first step in really socializing with them.

Unidentified Child #2: (Unintelligible)

BROWN: Kelley St. Clair's son Mikey made it through half of "Toy Story," which is longer than she expected. And 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 she took him to his first birthday party.

(Soundbite of song, "You've Got a Friend in Me")

Mr. RANDY NEWMAN (Singer): (Singing) Yes, you've got a friend in me.

BROWN: For NPR News, I'm Karen Brown.

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