Sensory Friendly Screenings Make Holiday Films a Family Affair

This column visits the faces of those who have benefited from the generous and tireless work of the nonprofits on the Mid Shore. Perhaps unknown to many of us, these individuals have had their lives transformed by the missions of these organizations and are giving back in unique ways to better our world. Amelia Blades Steward has been a freelance writer in our community for over 15 years and offers a glimpse into the lives of residents on the Mid Shore whom she has met along the way. (Published December 2018.)

It’s time for the holidays and there is usually a great new family film to see in local theaters. For families of children on the autism spectrum, however, being able to relax and enjoy the movie in the theater can be a challenge. Children on the autism spectrum, stimulated by a film, may flap their hands, dance, twirl or even jump up and down during the show. Or, the film might fuel an emotional meltdown.

According to the Autism Society, the concept of “sensory friendly films” was born in 2007, when Marianne Ross, of Elkridge, Maryland took her young daughter, Meaghan, to a matinee to see a movie starring one of her most beloved actors. Marianne intentionally picked an early showing figuring there would be fewer people there, but when Meaghan, at that time seven years old, began moving around and making noise, other movie-goers complained to staff, and the manager asked the Ross family to leave.

Marianne was frustrated, upset, and a bit angry at what happened and decided to ask another movie theater to set up a special screening for children on the autism spectrum, making adaptations to make the movie even more sensory-friendly. Marianne spread the word about the screening through her local Autism Society Affiliate and 300 people showed up. The theater then joined forces with the Autism Society of America and mobilized affiliates and theatres in towns all around the country.

Locally, “sensory friendly films” started being offered in 2013 through Triton Entertainment at Premier Cinemas in Easton and Cambridge on Saturday mornings at 10:30 a.m. on the opening weekend of family films. According to Jennifer Schultz, Area Manager for Triton Entertainment on the Eastern Shore, during sensory film showings, the movie auditorium keeps their lights turned slightly up (dim lights will remain on) and the sound turned slightly down.

As the mother of two children on the autism spectrum, Jennifer recalls her own personal experience with sensory friendly films, “I run movie theaters and I couldn’t bring my own children to the movies. One of my children, in particular, couldn’t handle the stimulation from the noise and lights.”

She adds, “I researched and found similar sensory film offerings in Kansas City. Our owner is big on community outreach and whole-heartedly supported the idea of adding the screenings.”

The sensory film showings of G and PG films started at the Easton Premier Cinema and were added at the Cambridge Premier Cinema. According to Jennifer, parents of special needs children and children on the autism spectrum are excited to be able to watch movies in such a welcoming environment. She adds, “Everyone in the room understands when the children respond to the film. We want this to be an inclusive experience for everyone.”

Rachel Stoyanov, Family Peer Support Specialist with the Maryland Coalition of Families, and a parent of children on the autism spectrum, helped to bring the issue to Jennifer after she realized the closest theater offering the sensory showings was in Annapolis. She comments, “This is filling such an important need here and the support from the community has been overwhelming since we started. It’s not only important for our children locally to the have the experience but has made families with these children feel a part of a larger supportive community.”

She adds, “My own children were so excited to be in a movie environment that is not so overwhelming that the feel they have to leave. The parents in these showings have also been so accepting of the needs of the children in the theater.”

Triton Entertainment also offers sensory film showings by request for special education classes in schools in Talbot, Caroline, Dorchester, and Queen Anne’s counties. Others may request these special showings outside of the theaters’ regularly scheduled films. As a result of the showings on the Eastern Shore, Triton Entertainment has made these showings part of their national model.

Beginning December 1, both Easton and Cambridge Premier Cinemas, offer regular showings of holiday films at 10:30 a.m. every Saturday and Sunday through Christmas Eve for free. The schedule for sensory friendly films and holiday films are on Easton and Cambridge Premier Cinemas Facebook page or at tritonmovies.com.

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