July is the hottest month for Hollywood’s cavalcade of blockbuster films, as studios compete for audience dollars and crash into each other to be the first to release their tent-pole films, such as Avengers, Jurassic World, Mission Impossible-Rogue Nation, and Fantastic Four.
Smuggling in snacks, snagging a ticket and finding parking are typically the biggest hurdles for those who clamor to see these blockbusters in a cool, dark theater.
But for children with autism and their families, the summer movie experience can be a daunting array of sights, smells and sounds. And with sensory overload comes the chance for an emotional meltdown.
“My 9-year-old son Jason can't be exposed to overpowering or sudden noises, and he doesn't do well in very dark rooms,” said Marjorie Williams of McLean. “When he gets excited, he likes to jump around and flap his arms, so he needs a good amount of personal space.”
Fortunately for children like Jason, AMC Theatres (AMC) and the Autism Society of America have teamed up to offer the “Sensory Friendly Films” program - an effort to give special needs children a chance to enjoy their favorite films in a safe and accepting environment.
“As a leading theatrical exhibition company, we are so proud to be making a difference in the estimated 1.5 million Americans living with an autism spectrum disorder by offering families a chance to see a movie together — often for the very first time,” said Ryan Noonan, public relations director for AMC.
Noonan said the concept of Sensory Friendly Films began in 2007 at the request of a Maryland mother, who took her young daughter to a matinee of Hairspray, a film her daughter was excited to see.
When her daughter began flapping her hands, dancing and jumping up and down, her family was asked to leave the screening.
The next day, the mother called her local AMC Theatre in Columbia, Md. and asked the manager if he would be willing to set up a special screening for children on the autism spectrum. He readily agreed, and AMC hosted its first sensory-friendly film in Columbia, Md. in 2007. The demand was so high, the theater sold out all 300 seats.
AMC’s corporate office took note of the success of the screenings, and contacted the Autism Society of America to join forces and mobilize affiliates and theatres in towns around the country. AMC now offers monthly sensory-friendly screenings at 152 theaters throughout the U.S. and Canada.
“The lights are turned up, the sound is turned down, and the 'silence is golden' rule is lifted - singing and dancing along is encouraged,” said a promotion for “Sensory Saturdays” on the website of The Autism Society of Northern Virginia (ASNV), located in Oakton. ASNV promotes the sensory-friendly films series to their community of more than 5,000 individuals and families affected by autism throughout Northern Virginia.
Currently, AMC Theatres is the only national theater chain that offers these sensory-friendly screenings.
Coming to AMC Tysons Corner 16
The following list of Sensory-Friendly Films is scheduled at AMC Tysons Corner 16. All shows begin at 10 a.m. For more information on the film series, go to amctheatres.com/programs/sensory-friendly-films.
Saturday, Aug 22, 2015 - Underdogs
Saturday, Sep 26, 2015 – Hotel Transylvania
Saturday, Oct 17, 2015 - Pan
Saturday, Nov 14, 2015 – The Peanuts Movie
Saturday, Dec 5, 2015 – The Good Dinosaur
In Northern Virginia, sensory friendly movies are held monthly on Saturday mornings at AMC Tyson's Corner 16 in Mclean, AMC Potomac Mills 18 in Woodbridge, and AMC Rio Cinemas 18 in Gaithersburg, AMC Georgetown 14, and AMC Capital Center 12 in Washington.
Movies are typically rated G or PG, and they start promptly at 10 a.m. Previews and advertisements are eliminated. The lights are dimmed, but not turned off, and the surround sound is muted. Because some children may have strict, special dietary needs, families are permitted to bring their own gluten-free, casein-free snacks from home.
“Being able to relax and enjoy quality family time without worrying if someone will complain or be disturbed by noise of movement is a wonderful experience,” said Ken Chan of Fairfax, whose entire family enjoys the screenings, along with his 7-year-old daughter, Emily, who has sensory-integration issues.
Best of all, children are allowed to be themselves.
They can shout out their thoughts, clap whenever they feel like it, dance in the aisles or twirl in their seats. For once, parents of children with autism can sit back, enjoy the show and trade smiles instead of criticism.
“No one complains and no one is thrown out,” Chan said. “We never hear a single ‘shhh’ from other parents. It’s such a relief.”