Sensory Films For People With Autism

Sensory-friendly screenings are now fairly common, tailoring to the autism community, as well as those who prefer this type of environment.

However, this was not always the case. Following a series of events in 2007, children with autism and their families can now enjoy a relaxing and fun day or evening out. 

Whether you are a movie lover living with autism or would like to take your loved one out to see an upcoming show, here’s what you need to know about sensory videos for autism.


The History of Sensory Films and Where to Enjoy Them Today


The concept of sensory-friendly films was first born in 2007. Marianne Ross, a resident of Elkridge, Maryland, decided to take her daughter, Meaghan, to a matinee viewing at a local movie theater. The movie starred one of her favorite actors. Although Marianne chose an early screening so that there would be fewer people, they were still asked to leave because of Meaghan’s behavior. 

Meaghan is on the spectrum and when she saw her Hollywood man, she began dancing, jumping up and down, and flapping her hands. She was excited and having a great time, but was disrupting other audience members who did not understand her condition. Following complaints, the mom-daughter duo was kicked out.

You can imagine Marianne’s frustration. Meaghan was having fun, but the entire experience ended on a negative note. That’s when she realized, there were likely many others in a similar position. She thought about the families that have had a similar experience, or worse — those who do not even attempt to go out because their loved one has autism. The following day, she called the AMC theater in Columbia, Maryland. She asked the manager if they would set up a special screening for children with autism. Not only did he agree, but the theater made some changes so that the movie was even more sensory-friendly.

After spreading the word, 300 people showed up. It was a great success. Following that day, the theater offered three sensory-friendly movies each month. Once the Autism Society of America and AMC theaters teamed up, the rest was history. In addition to AMC and Autism Society movie screenings, most major theaters now offer sensory films at least once a month. Check with your local theater to learn more.

  • Showcase Cinemas currently offers sensory-sensitive screenings on the first of each month.
  • Marcus Theatres offers “Reel Movies for Real Needs” to create a welcoming and comfortable environment.
  • Emagine Theatres offers accessible screenings, including sensory-friendly movies.


What Exactly Are Sensory-Friendly Movies?

If you have never attended a sensory autism-focused movie, it is a unique experience where theaters turn the lights up, but turn the sound down. This helps children with autism better cope with strong sensory stimulation.

Audience members are welcome to get up, shout, sing, dance, and just have a good time! Unlike a regular screening, the audience understands the unique behaviors of those that attend. 

Depending on the theater, there will also likely be no previews and families are welcome to bring snacks from home to meet special dietary needs. As one mother said in a Time Magazine article, reflecting on her experiences at regular screenings, “Children with autism are constantly under scrutiny. Since they look normal, people often think they’re misbehaving. It becomes exhausting trying to validate their right to be themselves. At a sensory-friendly movie, we as a family finally get to go to a movie and relax — and does that ever feel wonderful.”


The Challenges Children on the Spectrum Face at the Movies

For starters, no two children on the spectrum are identical — which means how children experience the movie theater differs from child to child. One individual’s experience can also differ from day-to-day.

With that being said, there are hallmark symptoms of autism that can make a day at the movies uncomfortable or even frightening.

The first reason is because of sensory stimuli. From the sensation of surround sound to food smells, going to the movies can be overwhelming for children on the spectrum. This is because of the way they process information around them. For example, some children may be hypersensitive to certain light wavelengths, whereas loud, noisy environments frighten others. 

Related: Sensory Overload in Autism


Tips for Helping to the Movies

Of course, the first step to enjoying a day or evening out is to attend a sensory-friendly movie screening. As discussed, the theater makes adjustments to the lighting and sound. Families are also free to get up, move around, and go in and out as needed. This makes the viewing much more relaxed.

To ensure an enjoyable, positive experience, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Bring a sensory travel kit based on your child’s needs. Whether it be a pair of earplugs or a fidget, think about what your child may need during the movie to feel most at ease. Here are some ideas to make a kit, which also works well when visiting relatives, attending school concerts, etc. An autism chew toy may help your child when they feel overstimulated. 
  • Choose the movie wisely based on your child’s emotional maturity and sensory sensitivities. For example, 3D movies can be a bit much for those who have visual sensitivity. A loud action film may also be a poor choice for your first experience. Start with a few less stimulating movies so that your child can get used to the environment, working your way up to faster-paced films. Theaters such as AMC offer matinee shows and then an evening show for more mature audiences.
  • Practice makes perfect, especially since sensory processing issues and anxiety often go hand in hand. Create an at-home movie night, discussing what it will be like when you go to the theater. Turn the lights down and turn up the volume louder than usual to see how your child copes.


The Importance of Early, Consistent Intervention

Up to 90% of children with autism have sensory difficulties. Families report that behaviors associated with difficulty processing sensory information can lead to social isolation for both them and their children. Restricted participation in daily living activities is common, and going to the movies is a prime example. By intervening early, you can better understand what triggers your child so that they can benefit from structured, therapeutic activities.

The average age of diagnosis in the United States is 4 years old. However, autism can be detected as early as 14 months in some children. 

Research shows that an early diagnosis of autism that leads to early intervention can have significant long-term positive effects on symptoms and developing skills. When interventions occur in children as young as 2 or 3 years old, their brain is still forming. These young brains are more “plastic” — meaning they’re more changeable compared to the brains of older children. From physical to thinking skills, communication to social skills, early intervention programs help children gain basic skills and provide the best chance of developing to their full potential. 

Intervention approaches for young children with autism are educational and behavioral. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a highly structured approach that targets communication, cognitive, social, self-management, and pre-academic skills. By intervening early, problematic behaviors may not become a habit as your child ages. Children with autism tend to learn best through small steps. Repeated, consistent practice is key.

It is also recommended that children with autism participate in activities in the home and community. This will help structure the everyday lives of these children, promoting greater development and learning. Making the effort to attend a family movie night once a month can be a rewarding and highly beneficial experience.

The Pingree Autism Center of Learning Is Here for Your Family

As we say at the Pingree center, “Better care, better outcomes!”

Being Utah’s leading autism learning center, we offer specialized, comprehensive treatment, services, and education for children with autism, as well as their families. Using the gold standard of care, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), we help children develop the skills they need to work towards a more fulfilling, independent life.

Our programs are available to children as young as 2 years old. Small classrooms allow our highly trained staff to focus on each child’s individual needs and goals. Again, this encourages long-term success.

Ready to take the next step? Contact us to learn more about how our programs can help your child thrive!