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How One Mom Rewrote the Movie-Going Experience with Sensory Friendly Films

In 2007, Marianne Martinson took her daughter Meaghan, who has autism spectrum disorder, to see Hairspray. As the matinee rolled, the then seven-year-old began to flap her hands, dance, twirl and jump. She was happy! But fellow movie-goers were not. Their mommy-daughter date came to an abrupt halt when the duo was asked to leave the theatre.

“I thought, ‘how unfair,’” Marianne said in an ABC News interview. “It just made me think, ‘There’s got to be some way she can go to a movie.’” The next day, Marianne reached out to another film establishment, AMC Theatre in Columbia, Maryland, and an innovative initiative arose. AMC and the Autism Society teamed up to launch “Sensory Friendly Films,” a monthly program for individuals on the autism spectrum and/or with other special needs. Auditorium adaptions were made to present a more comfortable atmosphere. “For these film screenings, we turn the lights up and turn the sound down. Guests can get up, dance, walk, shout or sing. Additionally, families are able to bring in their own gluten-free and/or casein-free snacks,” shared Rebekah Ellingson, Communications Manager for AMC.

Three hundred people showed up for the first Sensory Friendly Films event… a clear indication of the need! “That really was one of the first [sensory-friendly] programs,” says Rose Jochum, Director of Internal Initiatives for the Autism Society. “It got the ball started and led the way to many other autism-friendly programs, like shopping days at malls, restaurant experiences, Royal Caribbean cruises and even Broadway performances.”[Rose is referring to the Autism Theatre Initiative in which, in 2011, Disney’s musical The Lion King became the first-ever autism-friendly Broadway show. Others were later adapted, including Mary Poppins, Spider-Man, Wicked, Matilda, Phantom of the Opera and Aladdin.]

In evaluating modifications, Rose simply explains, “They look for places that might create a sensory overload and try to mitigate that.” And those simple adaptions are huge for many. “It’s a godsend for our families to be able to go and know they won’t be judged,” says Melissa Rosenberg, Executive Director for the Howard County Autism Society, the chapter that Marianne first aligned with. “Families are no longer limited to events hosted [solely] by our organization. They can enjoy sensory-friendly movies, concerts, galleries and more in the community.”

AMC’s “Silence is Golden” policy is not enforced during these screenings. “Being able to relax and enjoy quality family time without worrying if someone will complain or be disturbed by noise or movement is a wonderful experience,” Rebekah explained. And that’s the ultimate goal because, she says, “So often, we hear from families impacted by autism and other disabilities that they feel excluded from participating in ‘normal’ activities. Our Sensory Friendly Films allow these families to enjoy the movie-going experience in a safe and accepting environment.”

Orlando area mom Dawn Shadden, for example, loves taking her 5-year-old twins, who have autism, and their older brother to screenings at AMC Disney Springs. They have a family tradition of seeing every Disney film in the theatre together. “As with most children with autism, our boys are extremely picky eaters,” she explains. Being able to provide her children with their own (temperature-controlled) snacks in their preferred containers and cups is a win.

AMC shows Sensory Friendly Films nationwide (at about 180 theatres) on the second and fourth Saturday (family-friendly) and, as of October 2015, Tuesday evenings (mature audiences) of every month. AMC expanded its program with an adult-friendly counterpart for a broader range of content with no restriction on film rating. With the incredible success of AMC’s effort, other movie companies followed suit with similar efforts at Regal Cinemas, Cobb Theatres and select independent theatres nationwide.

Tim McGriff, Director of Marketing for Cobb Theatres, explains that sensory showings allow kids to be kids. “The audience is encouraged to be themselves and interact with the movie, while having fun without the worry of disturbing others,” he says.

When AmeriDisability reached out to Marianne for this article, she was incredibly humble regarding her trailblazing impact. “I still don’t really believe that it happened! It’s a wonderful feeling,” she said. And while Marianne’s efforts were inspired by her daughter, she says the screenings are intended for anyone who needs something tailored a little bit differently. “It’s very inclusive. I just want people to know that it’s friendly and a good place to be yourself.” The film industry may present recognition awards to Marianne and AMC, but we certainly offer a roaring standing ovation for their efforts. Bravo!

Article photo: Marianne Martinson and daughter, Meaghan

Nancy DeVault
Nancy is the managing editor of AmeriDisability. She is an award-winning storyteller passionate about health and happiness.

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