Robin Bennett
February 15, 2016

*********This post features Quick Pix!—bulletpoints that tell you what you need to know FAST! For the blog reader in a rush!

img_3396Sensory-friendly film showings first came to my attention when my sister, who has twin sons with special needs, told me that she had heard about them; “Too bad the only theaters showing them are so far away from us!” She told me. After some research, I found that this was not the case, but only an understandable misunderstanding.

Actually, many larger theater chains have sensory-friendly showings, they just don’t all advertise that fact.  AMC Livonia 20 does advertise these showings and is near us. Their website has monthly showing information including dates, times and the movies that will have sensory-friendly screenings. My family and I visited them a few weeks after my sister told me about these showings that feature:

  • Lights Up
  • Sound Down
  • Move & Make Noise
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At The beginning of the movie, the boys sat with their grandmother and baby sister as they took in the big screen and the yummy popcorn!

I was able to observe my nephews as they experienced their first movie in a theater at the 10 AM sensory-friendly showing of Kung Fu Panda 3. Nathan and Ethan, who are eight years old, have challenges associated with their diagnoses of Autism and Cerebral Palsy, respectively.

Let’s consider each special feature of sensory-friendly screenings separately and find out what I learned through the “real life research” of my nephews with special needs.

Lights Up!

After leaving the concession stand in serious need of restocking, my nephews–pulling along their respite worker, Rose, their mother and grandmother–thundered towards the theater. I stood back and watched. The twins had never seen a movie in a public theater setting before, so as much as I was interested in observing how things would go, I also didn’t want to be too close in case the tornado of chaos caused any collateral damage!

Entering the theater gave me my first real understanding that this was not ”your average movie showing”. The lights were raised to half level; you could easily see the theater layout, but still have comfortable visibility of the movie screen. It was easy to tell that the theater was sprinkled with just a few moviegoers of all ages.

Having the lights raised turned out to be an incredibly helpful feature as Ethan, who is on the autism spectrum, would run to the back of the theater when he was uncomfortable with something happening onscreen. He repeatedly ran from the bad guy, he called “the mean old Scrooge”. At one point, his respite worker took him out in the hallway for a break, which other guardians were doing as well.

Quick Pix: Benefits of Lights Up!

  • Heightened visibility for both moviegoer with special needs & caregiver
  • Good for those who are prone to over-sensitivity to anything “scary” or “bad”
  • Safety when moving throughout theater, especially coming in & out during showing (making transitions to/from breaks less stimulating)

Sound Down!

Raise your hand if you’ve ever jumped out of your movie theater seat when the sound engineer company is introduced at the beginning of the film credits; come on now, you know it’s happened to you, too! According to the Audio Engineer Society, a group made up of Hollywood’s best sound engineers, there is no regulation on sound levels for either filmmakers or the movie theaters that show us all of our favorite films. While the ever-rising tide of volume might simply startle those with typical sensory understanding, individuals with sensitivity to sensory experience, like with volume, might experience intense discomfort, confusion and even pain when it is too loud.

Such is the case with my nephews, Nathan and Ethan. In fact, sound sensitivity was one of the first symptoms Ethan’s family perceived that pointed towards his later diagnosis of autism. And Nathan’s issues stemming from his Cerebral Palsy make auditory processing challenging, especially with loud sounds. Considering that sound sensitivity was such a large issue for my nephews, it was clear that a typical movie showing would not be appropriate.

When we first entered the sensory-friendly showing, the lowered volume level was an almost imperceptible change to me. I even turned to my mother and remarked, “Are you sure this is lowered? I can hear it just fine!” For some reason, I had it in my head that a sensory-friendly showing must mean that it would be remarkably different than the regular showing; I hate to admit when I’m wrong, but yeah, I was wrong.

As the screening progressed and I was able to observe my nephews watching the movie, it became more apparent that what had initially been imperceptible to me was perceived and important to them. The lowered volume allowed them to experience the film comfortably as well as hear directions given from their respite worker and mother, when needed.


Quick Pix: Benefits of Sound Down!

  • Controlled sound level ONLY in sensory-friendly showings; Sound not regulated in typical movie theater showings
  • Movie presented at a comfortable hearing level; not difficult to hear, but also not jarring to those with volume sensitivities
  • Allowed for easier communication between caregiver and child when needed

Move & Make Noise!

Can you hear me scream and shout about how important this benefit was for my family at the theater? My nephews are rambunctious eight-year-olds, but the majority of the movement and noise from them during the sensory-friendly showing had nothing to do with their age, but everything to do with challenges that come to so many individuals with special needs.

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Ethan and his respite worker, Rose, sat together after he ran from his seat.
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Rose talking to Ethan after returning to the theater from a break in the lobby.

While one twin stayed in his seat almost the entire showing (but talked throughout to his family and caregiver about everything from “thank you for my popcorn!” to apologizing to everyone sitting around us for spilling his popcorn), his brother felt impelled to walk throughout the theater from opening credits to the happy ending. Ethan’s tendencies to move around, often caused by his special challenges, ranged from pacing a few steps in between my seat and his brother’s to running up the steps on the side of the auditorium seating and standing at the back of the theater when a “scary” part of the movie occurred (he would also repeat loudly that he did not like “the mean old Scrooge”).

It is during these moments that family and caregivers of individuals with special needs grimace and wait for the negative reactions of the people around them in public. It was so comforting to turn around and see the faces of solidarity also watching the sensory-friendly showing. These parents and caregivers were sympathetic to what my nephews were experiencing and were patient with the caregivers efforts to work with them, as I’m sure many of them have experienced similar things in their daily lives with a loved one with special needs.


Quick Pix: Benefits of Move & Make Noise!

  • Safe space to pace, roam or move in any way an individual may need to
  • Safe space to talk at any volume without fear of reprimand
  • Surrounded by understanding fellow caregivers and parents

Final Credits

After the popcorn was eaten (except for the large amounts left on the floor–by me) and the “mean old Scrooge” successfully karate chopped by the “Fat Panda”, the greatest take away from the sensory-friendly movie showing was not what I had expected it to be. While my nephews greatly enjoyed the movie and we are planning another sensory showing next month, the greatest benefit may have been for their mother and caregiver. She had not been able to attend a movie theater showing since her children were born. The look on her face when she was not treated negatively or shuffled aside when her boys didn’t act the way everyone expected, was one of the biggest benefits I could’ve hoped for.
In summary–
img_3397Quick Pix: Benefits of Sensory-Friendly Movie Showings: When all of the benefits of these showings are combined, they increase comfort and control for the caregivers/parents, as well as for those with special needs, allowing everyone to just be fellow moviegoers!

PS–My nephews want to see Batman next… What will Robin do? Tune in next time…