By Joel Hall
For families with children who suffer from autism, activities that require silence and decorum - such as movie watching - can quickly become socially awkward experiences. In Morrow, a partnership between the Autism Society of America and AMC Entertainment is letting children with sensory disabilities and their parents watch movies without the self-consciousness.
Since last October, the ASA and some metro Atlanta AMC theaters have hosted Sensory Friendly Films, a once-a-month movie viewing which accommodates children with autism and other sensory disorders. During the movie, the house lights are turned up, the sound is lowered, and children are able to dance, walk, shout, sing, and roam the theater freely.
The AMC Southlake 24 theater, located at 7065 Mount Zion Circle in Morrow, is one of three metro Atlanta AMC theaters hosting the program.
While the program is advertised mostly by word-of-mouth, Carin Yavorcik, ASA spokesperson, said the program is gaining popularity.
"The feedback has been overwhelmingly supportive," said Yavorcik. "One of the things you'll hear parents say a lot [about] autism is that it is very isolating. One of the stereotypical autism behaviors is hand flapping. If they get excited about something, they may want to get up and flap their hands. In this environment, it would be totally acceptable."
Yavorcik said children with autism often experience hypersensitivity to light and sound, and thus the movie is played without previews, at a lower volume, and with the house lights slightly up. Parents are also permitted to bring gluten-free and casein-free snacks, which are often used to mitigate autism-related behavior, according to Yavorcik.
Cindy Huffstickler, community relations manager for AMC Entertainment, said the program started a few years ago in Columbia, Md., after the mother of an autistic child approached the local AMC theater after an unpleasant experience at another theater.
"It basically started when we were approached by a parent of an autistic girl at our Columbia Mall location," she said. "Because of a sound her daughter made in [another] theater, she was asked to leave."
Huffstickler said AMC Entertainment showed its first sensory-friendly film at the Columbia Mall location in November of 2007 to an audience of 300 people. The program was tested in several major markets and eventually brought to metro Atlanta last October.
Sensory Friendly Films are now shown in 62 theaters across the country. AMC Discover Mills 18 on Sugarloaf Parkway and the AMC Phipps Plaza 14 on Peachtree Road, NE, also participate in the program, Huffstickler said.
"A lot of the crew will ask to be assigned to work those screenings, because they like the interaction with the kids," said Huffstickler. "This may be the first time a family has been able to go to a movie or something like this, so we are very happy to provide that."
Peggy McIntyre, family support coordinator for the Clayton Center in Jonesboro, which helps clients with developmental disabilities and addictive diseases, said the parents of autistic children often forego public activity due to the embarrassment they can experience if their child acts out. She said she fully supports the movie program.
"They may react strongly or indifferently to certain sounds, lights, textures, and other sensations," said McIntyre. "Onlookers appear annoyed or even frustrated at what they perceive as inadequate parenting skills ... this becomes a barrier and families no longer feel included and an integral part of their community.
"I know several people who don't attend church anymore because their child is very vocal," she continued. "This joint effort between the Autism Society of America and the AMC theater is commendable as it will afford families [the ability] to exhale and truly enjoy a family day at the movies."
The next sensory-friendly film viewing will be "Hotel for Dogs," on Saturday, Jan. 31, at 10 a.m. "Race to Witch Mountain" will be shown March 14 at 10 a.m. Tickets at the AMC Southlake 24 are $5.
For more information, visit www.autism-society.org.