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Help Bring Sensory-Friendly Shows to Major Movie Theaters!

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Sponsor: The Autism Site

Some movie theaters have begun to offer sensory-sensitive shows. Let's help encourage all chains to take part! Take action!

Family outings to the movie theater are a great way to get out with your children and spend a few hours laughing together. Millions do it every week. Yet, for families that have children with autism, a day at the movies can be a difficult, and sometimes impossible, ordeal.

Parent Renee Hill says the huge screen, darkened room and loud soundtrack often overwhelm her 4-year-old son, Weston, who otherwise loves watching videos1.

"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 says.

Too many parents have stories about their children disturbing other viewers, which often leads to being asked to leave the theater. That can be traumatizing for the child and parents.

"A lot of families aren't sure how their child will respond in those crowded situations, so they might not have attempted it, or they have attempted it and it didn't go so well," says Debra Berry Malmberg, founder and director of the Autism Clinic at Cal State Northridge2. 

There is large demand for these services. according to a 2014 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, one in 68 U.S. children has an autism-spectrum disorder (ASD)3.

So what can we do?

Recently there has been a trend in sensory friendly films in certain theaters. These showings help to make the experience easier for kids and adults by leaving the lights dimmed, but not turned off, keeping sound reduced from the normal booming audio, and also encouraging kids to clap, talk, and even play in the theater! There are no worries about complaints or meltdowns; kids can behave how they need to.

In 2007, AMC Theatres (AMC) and the Autism Society teamed up to offer the "Sensory Friendly Films" program as a special opportunity for individuals living with autism and others to enjoy their favorite films in a safe and accepting environment on a monthly basis. The movie auditorium keeps their lights turned slightly up (dim lights will remain on) and the sound turned slightly down. To meet special dietary needs, families are permitted to bring their own gluten-free, casein-free snacks from home4.

Sadly, not every chain takes part in this new effort. We would like to see that change!

Chances are you have a movie theater near you, and if they were to offer sensory friendly shows, the rest of the industry would most likely follow. This is the first step to making family movie days a wonderful and stress-free experience.

Sign the petition below and ask the CEO of your local movie theater to offer sensory friendly shows in their theaters so every family can enjoy a trip to the movies.

More on this issue:

  1. Karen Brown, NPR (27 August 2010), "IMAX'd Out: Kids With Autism Get Big-Screen Break."
  2. Sandra Barerra, Daily News (1 February 2016), "For those on autism spectrum, theaters hosting sensory-friendly screenings."
  3. Vidya Viswanathan, The Atlantic (6 April 2015), "Making Theater Autism-Friendly."
  4. Autism Society (2020), "Sensory Friendly Films."
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The Petition:

Dear Movie Theater CEO,

I am writing on behalf of the 3.5 million Americans on the autism spectrum who would love to be guests in your theater, but don't feel welcome.

For many families, going to see a movie is an entertaining way to spend time together. But for kids on the autism spectrum, the traditional movie experience can be overwhelming due to loud noises and the dark environment. For many families with kids on the spectrum, going to a movie theater together is simply not an option. Luckily, forward thinking theater chains have begun to offer sensory-friendly showings, allowing for even more guests, far more income, and providing a safe place for these families to take their children.

Movie chains have the power to make the parents and children that are not able to take part in a traditional movie experience feel welcome. By refusing to acknowledge and welcoming them, theaters are not only being dismissive, they are missing out on what could create an enormous, new revenue stream. Creating a family friendly environment is simple and low-cost, and will go a long way in making people on the spectrum feel less stigmatized.

There are so many families with children on the spectrum who would love to become your regular customers. Please follow the lead of other major theater chains and help make families with children on the spectrum feel welcome in your theaters by providing them with sensory-friendly screenings.


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