Friday, December 17, 2010

AMC theatre chain to offer sensory friendly movies across Canada

From The Ottawa Citizen in Canada:

The AMC chain has become the first in Canada to introduce movie screenings adapted for viewers with autism spectrum disorder.

The chain started offering occasional "sensory friendly films" in 2007 in the U.S. after receiving an appeal from the mother of an autistic girl in Maryland.

The girl had never been to a movie before, but she was a Zac Efron fan and eager to see Hairspray. The mother took her daughter to an early matinee. But as soon as Efron appeared on the screen, the girl started "shimming," a term that refers to repetitive behaviours like flapping the hands, spinning or making noises. One of the other moviegoers complained and the pair was asked to leave.

"This mother knew that something could be done," says Cindy Huffstickler, a spokeswoman for Kansas City-based AMC, which has more than 5,000 screens in five countries. "This is a need that had to be fulfilled."

The girl's mother called the general manager of the AMC chain and her local chapter of the Autism Society to discuss making moving-going more "friendly" for people with autism spectrum disorder, who are often hypersensitive to bright lights, loud sounds and crowds.

At a sensory-friendly screening, the lights are turned up a little so there's not as much contrast between the darkness of the theatre and the brightness of the screen. The sound is turned down, and moviegoers have the freedom to move around, make noise or sing if they want. Families can also bring in their own gluten-free, casein-free snacks, and there are no previews.

The AMC chain held its first screening in November 2007. By the following August, similar screenings were being held in 11 U.S. markets. That has since spread to 130 theatres in 61 cities, says Huffstickler. Autism spectrum was a market that wasn't being served --one in every 110 children is diagnosed with the disorder.

Last month, the first screenings were introduced to three AMC theatres in Canada, including the one in Kanata. Saturday at 10 a.m. will be the second sensory-friendly offering in Kanata, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

"We get so many compliments. Families say this is the first time they have been able to take their child to a film," said Huffstickler. "Anyone is welcome to come. I get calls from families who say they don't have a special-needs child, but they enjoy it so much, they want to go back."

Debbie Irish, program director a the Toronto-based Geneva Centre for Autism, says the sensory-friendly model has been well received. The families of autistic children often try to go to movies, but give up.

"After one unpleasant experience, they don't choose to go back," said Irish, who knows of one independent Toronto cinema that offered a similar service, but not with first-run films.

A Jan. 8 screening of Gulliver's Travels starring Jack Black is the next scheduled sensory-friendly film, says Huffstickler. The chain plans to screen one such matinee every month, depending on the releases. Admission prices are $6, the typical early-morning matinee price.