Empty comfortable red seats with numbers in cinema

What to Know About the 4% of U.S. Movie Theaters That Offer Sensory-Friendly Screenings

Loud noises, bright lights and foreign smells can make going to the movie theater or seeing a live performance an overwhelming experience for those with autism spectrum disorder. To make showings more inclusive, an increasing number of theaters across the country are now offering “sensory-sensitive” screenings of movies and performances for people living with autism.

“Many people on the autism spectrum experience intense anxiety and heightened sensory sensitivity,” Lori McIlwain, Co-founder & Board Chair of the National Autism Association told The Mighty. ”By making a few simple adjustments, movie theaters can give individuals on the spectrum the opportunity to enjoy a film without judgment or fear.”

According to the Autism Society, approximately 3.5 million Americans live on the spectrum – a huge market for the cinema arts world to tap into. Sensory-sensitive screenings began in 2007, with AMC Entertainment, the second largest cinema chain in America.

Since 2007, AMC has expanded their program to include 175 cinemas in 33 states, about half of their cinemas. Other cinema groups are starting to broaden their offerings as well. The largest cinema chain, Regal Entertainment Group, offers screenings at about 6 percent of their cinemas, 36 out of 565. Smaller chains, like NCG Cinemas, offer sensory-sensitive showings at all 20 of their locations.

Shows billed as sensory-sensitive often include accommodations such as lowered volume and raised lighting. Other theaters skip the previews and make accommodations for special dietary needs. Allowing families to bring their own food is another way theaters can make themselves more accessible, McIlwain said.

Of the cinemas that have sensory-sensitive offerings, most films are geared towards children and families – limiting showings to one children’s movie playing one morning a month. Others offer more frequent showings once a week or several times a month, as well as discounted tickets. AMC is one of the only theater groups to offer screenings for adolescents and adults with autism, occasionally playing movies rated PG-13 and R.

“It’s important to allow individuals with autism to be in a comfortable, low-stress environment where they can simply be themselves,” she said. These screenings all act as a judgment-free zone where patrons are allowed to get up, make noise and act in ways that may otherwise be regarded as disruptive. Because of their relaxed environment, sensory-sensitive screenings can benefit more than just those with autism. Relaxed screenings can also benefit those with learning disabilities, movement disorders, young children and their families, as well as those with neurological conditions like Tourette syndrome.

Movie theaters aren’t the only venues increasing their reach. Playhouses and other performing arts venues are also looking for ways to become more inclusive. Earlier this month, playhouses in New York and California hosted relaxed performances of “Backstage in Biscuitland,” a show about life with Tourette’s. In December, the California Ballet will become the first West Coast dance company to offer a sensory-sensitive production of “The Nutcracker.”

Inclusivity is key, McIlwain said. “We’re happy to see movie theaters promoting inclusivity and hope more will follow suit.”

Have you seen a sensory-sensitive movie? Share your experience in the comments below.


Lydia Wayman.

When My Visible Illness Hides My Invisible Disability Advocacy

Hi! I’m Lydia.

I’m a young adult with mitochondrial disease (mito). Mitochondria are in every cell, and they produce energy for the whole body. Well, yours do, but mine don’t do such a great job. It’s like using an iPhone with only 30% of its battery left and realizing your charger is faulty. In a human, that “low battery” means that my organs don’t have enough energy to do their jobs. I might qualify as bionic, as I have an insulin pump, a feeding tube, an ileostomy, and a central line (a permanent IV that goes in by my collarbone and ends at my heart). I have had many ER visits and hospital stays, surgeries, and procedures. I was in a nursing home for over a year (where no 25-year-old should have to be!), but I live semi-independently now, with an aide during the day and one-to-one nursing at night.

I got my master’s degree in English and nonfiction writing while in the nursing home. Unlike most vocations, writing/editing aren’t affected by unexpected hospital stays, broken sleep, or long periods when I can’t leave the house. It keeps me busy and engaged with other people and outside events. My apartment may be tiny, but my world is limitless!

What you just read is the biography of a disability advocate. There are a lot of ways to advocate, but I like to share my experience and answer questions so parents and teachers can do the very best for their kids.

Lydia Wayman.
Lydia Wayman.

While I do think it’s important for people to be aware of mito and other illnesses and disabilities, that’s not why I advocate. Awareness is important, but it’s not possible for everyone to know about every issue. Instead of specific signs and symptoms, I try to challenge people to see past assumptions and stereotypes and give others a bit of grace and a lot more respect.

Sometimes, disability feels like an invitation for assumptions and stereotypes. I spark attention because people can see my lines, tubes, pumps, dressings, and so forth. But to me, the “hardware” is just another part of my body. I’m so used to it, I don’t even see it when I look in a mirror. I always forget it’s the first thing most people see. If I were about to present at a conference about disability, and you took a seat in the audience, you would be sitting there waiting to me to delve into certain topics. After all, it’s a presentation about disability, and I’m at the front of the room in a wheelchair!

I would probably throw you for a loop when I started to speak. What if I told you that mito hardly comes up in my advocacy work? When I write and speak to groups, the bio I submit for the program reads more like this:

Lydia Wayman is an autistic advocate with a B.S. in education and an M.A. in English and nonfiction writing. Her presentations, writing and art use her experience to educate others about autism. She is a young leader with the Autistic Global Initiative and has lead youth with disabilities at a leadership conference and spoken to scout troops, parents, and several times at OCALICON. She contributes her writing about autism to magazines, books, and newspapers. Lydia enjoys mentoring younger autistic friends and supporting families by helping them understand how their kids see the world.

Mito might be what you see, but it’s not who I am. If I were to stop the pumps and disconnect the lines, you wouldn’t see mito. Autism is different. It’s a part of every thought and feeling and experience. That’s why I focus on autism in advocacy. I don’t care if you understand the medications I take, but I hope by knowing who I am, how I see the world, and why I’m different, others will take a step toward accepting the differences in all people.

When I talk and write about autism, I tend to focus on sensory issues, communication, and the impact typing has had in my life. I show how assumptions about my behavior are usually wrong. Overall, my goal is to help other people see that they never know the whole story about someone else. I do want people to understand autism — and mito — but I’d much rather people understand how off-base and harmful quick judgments can be. That would definitely help the autism community, people with serious illness and everyone else.

The next time a disability advocate rolls into town for a presentation, she may come in a wheelchair loaded with pumps, medicine, and tube feeds… so she can talk to you about autism. The next time you hear a child screaming in the grocery store, you see a person stand up from a wheelchair to reach something, or if your friend cancels plans yet again because she doesn’t feel well, remember that what you see is never the whole story.

Follow this journey at Autistic Speaks.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us a story about a time you encountered a commonly held misconception about your disability, disease, or mental illness. How did you react, and what do you want to tell people who hold this misconception? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Kaydence and her younger sister, Piper

'Mommy, I Read There Is No Cure for Autism'

Kaydence and her younger sister, Piper
Kaydence and her younger sister, Piper

It’s not unheard of for my oldest daughter to worry. It’s actually quite the norm. She is 9 years old and incredibly bright and insightful. These qualities seem to come with a certain degree of personal cost, though. She’s easily overwhelmed and worried by things that wouldn’t register as a blip on the radar for a typical pre-teen. I’ve spent many nights trying my best to calm her fears as she’s sat in bed, worrying about things like the Ebola outbreak and acts of mass violence in school. So, the other day, when I sensed her anxiety and asked her to tell me what was on her mind, I wasn’t expecting her answer to be so deeply personal.

“Mommy, I read in a book that there is no cure for autism. That makes me really sad for Piper.”

For a moment, I was at a complete loss for words. My silence seemed to deepen her sense of worry, and she followed up with “Is that true, Mom? Is she going to be OK?”

Before I could find the right words, my husband carefully explained to her that autism is not a disease and should not be viewed as such. More importantly, he assured her Piper is and will continue to be just fine. This seemed to satisfy her for a moment, but the proverbial wheels were turning. A few minutes later, she pressed us further.

“If it’s not a disease, then what is it?”

By now, I’d recovered enough from my thoughts to add to the conversation.

“People who have autism don’t need to be cured, Kaydie, because there is nothing ‘wrong’ with them,” I offered. “They just experience and process things differently. Instead of searching for a cure or a fix for something that isn’t broken, there needs to be a greater effort to understand how people like Piper see the world. Then, we can learn to relate and communicate in a way everyone understands.”

I went on to explain that Piper spends so much time in therapy not in an effort to be cured, but rather, because she was having difficulty showing and telling us how she was feeling. I did my best to explain that helping Piper express her thoughts and feelings is an important part of understanding autism, as a whole.

I hoped, in that moment, this was enough of a learning experience to ease her anxiety over her sister’s future. It seemed to be. She went back to the movie she’d been watching with her siblings, seemingly satisfied with the conversation.

I was the one left exhausted and saddened by this brief exchange. Even though campaigns for autism awareness are everywhere, this conversation left me feeling like we’re fighting an uphill battle. Where, as human beings, are we getting this so wrong? My 9-year-old is a literal thinker, and therefore asks questions about things that don’t make sense to her. How many other 9-year-olds are reading the same literature she read? How many of them stumble upon misinformation like this, take it at face value, and view autism as some kind of incurable disease? If anything scares me about Piper’s future, it is this type of mentality.

Perhaps some of the efforts to raise awareness are misguided. Is it possible we are focusing so much on educating this generation of parents that we are forgetting our children’s generation needs educating, too? As parents of children with autism, we are a community with a voice getting collectively louder and in doing so, gaining much needed attention. But how can we expect our children to be the next generation of advocates if we are not enabling them to understand, as well?

If there is one thing I wish people would stop getting so wrong about autism, it is the notion that those who have it are “suffering” or somehow broken.

I truly believe it’s time we redirect our call for awareness to include our young children. Equally if not more important, we must reach their classmates who have had no firsthand exposure to autism.

If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is this: It will be far easier to plan carefully and to lay a foundation which educates children correctly from the beginning than it will be to try to change their mindset later in life. We’re currently fighting our hardest to break through the barrier of preconceived notions about autism. If we don’t give our children a better starting point, we will never progress past this point, ourselves. We will merely pass along to them the same obstacles we are fighting so hard to overcome today.

The Mighty is asking the following: How would you describe your disability, disease or mental illness to a child? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

This 'Hugging Machine' Aims to Help People on the Autism Spectrum With Sensory Issues

A Denmark-based company is bringing to market a This photo from Gloria Mundi Care shows a person lying in the OrbisBox. deep-pressure device aimed at soothing the sensory issues of those on the autism spectrum.

The so-called “hugging machine,” originally conceived by renowned autism advocate Temple Grandin, has been dubbed OrbisBox by manufacturer Gloria Mundi Care.

The device allows users to lie on their front, side or back while being squeezed by foam-covered panels inside the box. These panels gently close in on the user at adjustable pressure levels. The OrbisBox can also provide light and sound therapy via color-changing panels that make up its walls and wired-in Bose speakers.

OrbisBox’s goal is to help a person who has difficulty processing sensory information. Those on the spectrum are often either hypersensitive to sensory stimuli or experience minimal responses to the same information. When someone on the spectrum is overwhelmed by too many senses, it can sometimes result in a sensory overload meltdown. A device like this may help in these situations.

The OrbisBox is on wheels and about the height and width of a refrigerator, with a depth of about 7 feet to accommodate a person lying down. It retails commercially for about $51,400 USD but can be purchased for personal use.

Mighty contributor Lamar Hardwick, who is on the autism spectrum, said the price of the machine would deter people from using it.

“The cost alone would limit the number of autistic people who may benefit from its use because it will alienate an entire economic class from having access to it,” Hardwick said.

He also expressed concern about the efficacy of the OrbisBox in actually comforting users.

“The ability to control the machine takes away one of the most important aspects of ‘stimming,'” Hardwick said. “In theory, self-stimulation by individuals with autism works because it is self-regulating. With little to no actual control over the function of the machine, I’m concerned that the results will fall short.”

The Mighty wants to know: Would you try the OrbisBox? Explain why or why not in the comment section below.

Young boy is laying his head on mom's shoulder.

When a Man at the Waterfront Stopped Me During My Children's Meltdowns

I wish I could tell you it’s all wine and roses — that your kids are always going to be on their best behavior every time you go out and will be perfect little angels at home.

But oh, would I be a liar.

Meltdowns in our family can last anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours, and they are not always at home. They can happen anywhere, and in their wake I usually feel defeated. I feel like I’ve completely failed my kiddos because no matter what I did, it wasn’t good enough, even though I tried. I don’t like to talk much about these events, especially the public ones, because they are a stinging reminder of just how hard my kiddos really have it and just how cruel the scrutinizing world can be.

But some stories are worth repeating because some have a happy ending.

It was nearing the end of April vacation, and the kiddos were getting restless. I decided to take them for a walk on the waterfront one unusually warm day just to break up the monotony and get them out of the house. Naturally, the walk wasn’t without incident, but I had expected as much and soldiered on. Once we got to the main drag, they saw an ice cream restaurant and insisted we go over. The line was around the corner when they plunked themselves down at a table, and I knew then this wasn’t going to end well. There was no way they were going to be able to wait that long. I made the crucial mistake then of telling them the line was too long and we’d have to try again another time.

Both experienced a meltdown. We had reached a crosswalk and now that I had one child in my arms, the other was on the ground. Both were still wailing and I could feel myself losing it when I was approached.

A gentleman, probably not much older than me, stopped me before we crossed.

“Excuse me, I couldn’t help but notice you were struggling. Do you need help? I have a little guy of my own, but if there’s anything I can do…?”

I was flabbergasted. Most people would scowl or scold me and tell me to get my kids under control, and here this man was, acknowledging the difficulty of my situation and still offering to help. I choked back the tears of gratitude and thanked him. I politely refused because we still had a long walk back to the car. That’s when he put his hand on my shoulder and said the best thing you can say to a mama of children on the autism spectrum. The one thing I needed to hear and will never forget:

“You’re doing a great job, Mom.”

I nearly burst into tears at his kindness. I nodded my thanks, and we parted ways. The meltdowns continued all the way back to the car and all the way home. Once we were home and both children had parted ways into their respective rooms to calm down, I made myself a cup of Earl Grey and reflected on what he said to me. It made me feel validated. It squashed those feelings of failure and defeat and restored my faith not only in myself but in the world again.

So to you, kind sir, I want to say thank you. Thank you for your understanding and your empathy. It means more than you’ll ever know!

The Mighty is asking the following: Share with us an unexpected act of kindness, big or small, that you’ve experienced or witnessed in an everyday place. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

group of friends

My Life as a Social Butterfly as a Person on the Autism Spectrum

When people hear I am on the autism spectrum, a lot of them expect me to be socially withdrawn. After they connect with me further, they tell me my social skills are amazing. 

But being a social butterfly as someone on the autism spectrum isn’t nearly as easy for me as it looks. I have a strong desire to be around others. Yet if I spend too much time with people, I get to a point where I’m so exhausted from constantly thinking about my social skills that I can’t function. And if there are too many people (three is a crowd for me), I will get overwhelmed.

It’s also difficult when I slip up and don’t realize I’ve been rude. People either need to tell me I’ve been rude (and I’ll feel bad about it, but at least I can apologize), or they will get upset with me and not say a word, and I’ll figure it out weeks, months or even years later.

I love to talk with people. But unless I know someone very well, I avoid using the phone to speak with them. I can’t see them, so the few skills I have in reading facial expressions are useless. I definitely struggle with hearing differences in tone of voice or recognizing what they mean. And sometimes, I can’t understand or process what the person has said fast enough to respond. In fact, I have found that if I’m going to speak on the phone with someone, I usually need to write out a script for myself. Overall, it’s much easier for me to text, chat or email. This way, I have more time to process what has been said and think of how to respond.

It’s taken a lot of time and energy to understand social skills. It’s not always easy for me to be around others as someone on the autism spectrum. It’s certainly frustrating at times. And yet, I’m a total social butterfly. There’s no doubt about that!

Imagine someone Googling how to help you cope with your (or a loved one’s) diagnosis. Write the article you’d want them to find. If you’d like to participate, please check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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