Sensory Friendly Movies: Opening the Theater to Children with Disabilities

Jun 4, 2012

Going to the movies is one those experiences that everyone should be able to enjoy. You’ve got your popcorn, candy, and an icy Coke. The lights dim, and for the next two hours, you’re in another world. But for some with disabilities, like autism or epilepsy, going to the movies can be almost impossible. Movie theaters all over the country, though, are taking steps to change that. Even here in Murray, the Cheri Theaters have started playing movies that are sensory friendly for children. 

GARY PITTS: Movies today are better than ever, at least as far as picture and sound quality are concerned. The days of the old 35mm reel are gone, replaced by Dolby High Definition digital projectors. And the sound is just as crisp and clear as the picture, with Dolby Digital Surround Sound blasting an aural landscape that is…

“…all around you.”

GARY: But for some, all of these advances have done nothing more than push them away from the theater. People who have autism and other disabilities are often extremely sensitive to light and sound. So the more intense it is, the more unbearable it becomes for them. This is especially so for children.

HEATHER PRICE: “There’s many families here who have either never been to a movie since their child was born, or they’ve been to one and they’ve never come back.”

GARY: Heather Price was the President of the National Student Speech, Language, and Hearing Association chapter at Murray State University. She says her group presented the idea of sensory friendly movies to Murray’s Cheri Theaters in April for Autism Awareness month.

PRICE: “It’s a big deal for families to actually get to have that simple life pleasure of coming to a movie theater because they don’t get that anymore.”

GARY: So what does the theater do to make the movie experience more enjoyable for children with sensory sensitivities? Chris Hopkins is the General Manager at Cheri Theaters.

CHRIS HOPKINS: “We leave the house lights up so that the room doesn’t get dark. We lower the volume. A lot of kids are sensitive to sound. We don’t put any previews on, because when they come to see a movie, they want to see that movie and nothing else.”

GARY: And many of the standard movie going rules don’t apply during these showings, including the golden rule.

HOPKINS: “We don’t mind if they talk. We don’t mind if they get up and move around.”

GARY: But the movie experience isn’t limited to just the show itself. The standard fare of popcorn, candy, and a coke, as delicious as it may be, doesn’t always fit the bill for those who have restrictive diets. Children with autism often have food allergies, like gluten. So, on sensory friendly days, they can bring their own snacks as well. Hopkins says at the first showing in April, there were around sixty people who showed up. Among them was Marilyn York.  

MARILYN YORK: “People who actually have autism that can talk to you will tell you that sometimes something sounds probably a hundred times louder than what the normal person might hear it.”

GARY: York’s son, who is 14 years old, was diagnosed with autism when he was four. She says he’s sensitive to light and sound, and he does have a restrictive diet. So the sensory friendly showing allows her to bring him to the movies when she otherwise wouldn’t be able to do so. And that’s a big deal.

YORK: “It helps them learn how to act in social settings, and how to be, appropriate behavior around others, and just gets them out.”

GARY: When York and her son came in April, she says it was one of the few times he was able to sit through the entire movie. So with changes made and restrictions lifted, children with disabilities and their families are free to go to the movies. The theater had its second sensory friendly showing this past week, Pirates: Band of Misfits. The atmosphere was relaxed. Everyone sitting back, momentarily free of worry, just enjoying the show.

Cheri Theaters has scheduled sensory friendly movie showings for the next two months. You can find more information here