Mom shares her autistic son's 'sensory friendly' movie experience and how to find them
"Nobody is looking at you weird because all the families are there for the same reason."
Going out to see a movie is a classic fun family activity, but for some families, it's an outing that causes far more stress than it's worth. When you have a child who needs to move or make sounds in order to function, sitting quietly through a two-hour movie simply isn't going to happen.
That's why major movie theater chains have started having dedicated "sensory showings" of feature films for families with autistic members or others who have sound and movement needs that don't mesh well with traditional moviegoing etiquette.
Camille Joy of the Moments of Joy Podcast shared a video her son, Maison, enjoying a sensory showing of Disney's "The Little Mermaid." Maison can be seen walking up and down the aisle stairs during the film in the post, with Joy sharing how the experience went.
"In my stories the other day I was expressing my desire to bring Maison the movies but I knew he wouldn’t do well in a typical theater setting," the mother of five wrote on Instagram. "A few of you told me about sensory movie days so I googled this in my area. There were so many theaters that do this."
"Sensory movies are for children like ours," she explained. "They are advertised as safe space where guests are free to express themselves by singing, crying, dancing, walking around, talking or shouting while enjoying Hollywood’s latest films!"
"Maison got to be himself," Joy continued. "Singing, loudly humming, walking throughout the theater and he wasn’t the only one, that was my favorite part! Nobody is looking at you weird because all the families are there for the same reason. I had minimal anxiety in this atmosphere and Maison was singing his little heart out."
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Other parents chimed in with their own experiences with their kids with unique sensory needs. While some still find movies a challenge because their kids are sensitive to sounds in general, others loved having the dedicated showings where their kids could feel free to be themselves without worrying about disturbing others.
"Yes!!!! Regal Movie theaters in NYC do early viewing," shared one parent. "I was able to tell my Tyler to see his Mario Movie, which was such a relief. Only time he's ever sat through one. He did get up and became restless but stayed focused. There are fewer people and it is such a relief. I'm glad our Maison was able to enjoy the movie."
"I love this our son did great," shred another. "We're definitely doing this again."
But the majority of comments were from people who had no idea this was even a thing and were so relieved to hear about it.
Taking your child to the movies is something many parents look forward to, and the fact that parents of kids with sensory needs now have a way to do that without worry is huge. And it appears all of the major movie theater franchises have some version of this offering for families.
According to AMC Theatres, the lights are turned up and the sound is turned down at their Sensory Friendly Films "so you can feel free to be you at these unique showings for people living with autism or other special needs."
Regal Cinemas calls them "My Way Matinees," which also have the lights up and the sound lowered and where "guests are free to express themselves by singing, crying, dancing, walking around, talking or shouting."
Harkins' Sensory Friendly Screenings "include brightened light levels, reduced sound volume and room for guest interaction." They also allow outside snacks to be brought in.
Studio Movie Grill's website says, "Special Needs Screenings are shown with the lights up and the volume lowered and children are free to move around, talk, or even dance in the aisles during the movie. The sensory friendly screenings are free for children with special needs and their siblings." (Adults still pay a "before-noon price.")
Each theater chain has its own schedule for these special showings, so check with your local movie theaters to see when they offer them. Joy recommends Googling "sensory movies near me," but if you aren't in a major market you may have to call your local theater to find out if they offer sensory-friendly film showings.
Sometimes inclusivity involves welcoming everyone into the same space and sometimes it means creating special spaces for people whose needs differ from others. Three cheers for movie theaters recognizing this need and providing a way for everyone to experience the joy of watching movies on the big screen.