- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Movie theaters can be problematic places for parents of special-needs children, but thanks to a national partnership between AMC Entertainment Inc. and the Autism Society of America that started locally, going to the movies can be a family affair.

Autism, a complex disability that affects about 1.5 million Americans, handicaps a person’s communication and social interaction skills. Autistic children, in particular, can be overly sensitive to the bright lights and loud music in movie theaters and may shout, sing and run around during the performance, much to the consternation of other people in the theater.

Since last fall, AMC Theatres have been holding “sensory friendly” screenings nationwide for children with autism and other behavioral disorders during which the house lights aren’t dimmed and the sound is turned down. During the screenings, AMC also waives its iconic “Silence Is Golden” policy so children can feel free to walk around and dance.

The screenings got their start in 2007, when Marianne Ross got a call from her baby sitter who had taken Ms. Ross’ two children to see a matinee showing of “Hairspray” at a Maryland theater. During the show, 7-year-old Meghan, who has autism, began “jumping up and down and clapping to the music.”

Theater patrons complained, and management asked the baby sitter to take the children outside.

“It was really awful. We had picked a matinee show because we did not think that many people would be going to see it,” Ms. Ross says. “Going to the movies can be a rite of passage for kids, but for parents with special-needs children, it can be really difficult.”

Embarrassed but hopeful that there could be a solution, Ms. Ross called Dan Harris, general manager of the AMC Columbia Mall 14 in Columbia, Md.

“It all started with a phone call,” Mr. Harris says. Ms. Ross explained her experience at the other theater to Mr. Harris and asked if a group of parents and children could come to a movie at a special time so as not to disturb other patrons.

“I only had a general idea of what autism is, but I thought it was a fantastic idea and a way to help the community,” Mr. Harris explains.

That November, the theater hosted 300 special-needs children and their parents for a screening of “Bee Movie.”

“I learned a lot that day,” Mr. Harris says. “I could tell [the screening] affected a lot of people.”

Mr. Harris continued with the screenings, showing one film a month for special-needs groups, and along with Ms. Ross was cited by the Maryland General Assembly for his good will in June 2008.

“The feedback was so positive. I knew we were on to something,” Mr. Harris says. The screenings also attracted children with Tourette syndrome and senior citizens who preferred the altered sound and lighting levels.

This past August, AMC Theaters took the idea national by having sensory friendly screenings in 11 theaters in 10 markets.

The program has since expanded to 67 theaters in 36 markets. To mark Autism Awareness Month, “Monsters vs. Aliens” screened Saturday and “Hannah Montana: the Movie” will be shown April 18. Besides the AMC theater in Columbia, area theaters participating in the program include the AMC Rio Cinemas 18 in Gaithersburg, the AMC Potomac Mills 18 in Woodbridge, Va., and the AMC Tysons Corner 16 in McLean.

“The first time I went to one of the screenings, I cried the whole time,” says Marguerite Kirst Colston of Bethesda, who saw a special screening of “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” with her autistic 8-year-old son, Camden, and her daughter, Theresa.

Mrs. Colston explains that going to the theater with her children before was always a dreaded experience because she never knew how Camden would behave or react.

“People don’t understand autism. They think that the children are just behaving badly. These special screenings allow the parents to relax, so the kids can relax,” she says.

“Going to the movies is something that people like us take for granted,” Mr. Harris says. “People with special needs should not be excluded from movies.”

AMC Theaters plans to broaden sensory friendly screenings in more markets and also is starting a program to hire special-needs teenagers to work in their theaters.

• Stephanie Green can be reached at sgreen@washingtontimes.com.

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