By Danielle Haynes
The Tonawanda News
In 2007, a Baltimore woman and her 9-year-old daughter made a special trip to the movie theater to see High School Musical 2 — the little girl was a huge fan of Zac Efron.
When Efron graced the silver screen, the little girl started making a commotion and even though the theater visit was carefully planned for the middle of a weekday, there were a few other people in attendance and they complained. The two were asked to leave.
The 9-year-old suffers from autism and the disorder — along with making it difficult for her to communicate and interact with others — makes her especially sensitive to the loud sounds and low lights of a movie theater. Frustrated with not being able to enjoy a movie with her daughter, the mother worked with AMC Theaters and later the Autism Society to create the Sensory-Friendly Film Series.
“She knew she wasn’t alone and knew there were other families who would have the same problem,” said Cindy Huffstickler, community relations manager at AMC.
The program officially started in 2008 and has since spread into 61 markets across the nation in a total of 129 theaters, including the Maple Ridge AMC in Amherst. And so far, it’s been a success in Western New York.
Depending on the weather, Kathy Eiss, president of the Autism Society of WNY, says anywhere from 70 to 90 people may show up to the monthly screening — and sometimes from as far away as Rochester.
“Parents are, on the whole, just very glad to be able to go out to the movie and not have it be a stressful experience, Eiss said.
The program always screens a family-friendly film Saturday mornings once a month. Depending on the release schedule of films, the particular week the screening takes place may change from month to month.
The rules are this: House lights are kept up, sound is turned down, kids are allowed to talk and walk around, and there are no trailers or advertisements because waiting can be difficult for people with autism. Families are also permitted to bring in their own snacks since those with autism are often on diets restricting gluten.
“Some of the kids have sensory issues, they have problems with handling loud noise and they might be more disoriented in the dark. (The program) takes into account their sensory differences. If the child starts to sing in the middle of the movie, they aren’t asked to leave,” Eiss said. “It provides a very safe, comfortable and accepting environment for the families to go out and see current movies.”
The Sensory-Friendly Film Series welcomes families of all sorts including those who might suffer from other disorders that might make it difficult for them to understand the social boundaries of movie theater etiquette.
“It’s phenomenal,” Huffstickler said. “You don’t realize going to the movie is just a normal experience, but for these kids most of them it’s their first time to go to a movie. Usually these mothers call me crying that it’s the first time as a family they can do an activity all together.”
The next scheduled Sensory-Friendly film at AMC Maple Ridge is a screening of “Mars Needs Moms” at 10 a.m. Saturday. Cost is $4.50 and tickets can be purchased on the day of the event.
Contact features editor Danielle Haynes at 693-1000, ext. 116.