Specialized monthly screenings accommodate growing population

Saturday morning. 11:00am. You settle into your seat at the movie theatre, popcorn in hand, eagerly awaiting the lights to dim and the dull roar of the patrons’ voices to calm. The previews start to roll, but the calm never comes. It’s noisy, people are moving around, and the lights stay on. A young boy shrieks with delight, and no one turns around to shush him.

This may not sound like the ideal movie experience to you, but to someone on the autism spectrum, this is a place you can find solace in. It’s a place that acknowledges your tendencies and makes an effort to be inclusive of them.

For two Calgary theatres, this environment is a reality. Both Canyon Meadows Cinemas in the S.E. and Cineplex Sunridge in the N.E. have seen the emergence of autism-friendly movie screenings. The screenings usually occur once a month, on Saturday mornings before the cinema opens for the day.

They accommodate autistic individuals by keeping the lights on, limiting extreme changes in volume, and encouraging movement and sound from the guests.

Canyon Meadows is a family-run business who created this initiative on their own, while Cineplex Sunridge provides the screenings through a nationwide partnership with Autism Speaks Canada.

Ross MacInnes is a 21-year-old in Calgary who spends time each week with autistic youth. He and his friend Riley, who is a 22-year-old high-functioning autistic man, engage in various activities around the city. MacInnes says that usually, seeing a movie is not something he would consider for an afternoon with Riley.

“Riley can get distracted by something like the red EXIT light, or the lights indicating where to walk can really bother him,” mentions MacInnes, “if there is a loud noise he’ll jump or yell, it’s like an overload.”

MacInnes says that especially in school, he has witnessed harmful outward judgment or rudeness towards autistic people. He sees the value in creating these safe spaces for autistic people and their loved ones alike.

“There are way more autistic people than you think,” says MacInnes, “being autistic or on the spectrum somewhere doesn’t mean you should hide away and be forced to stay at home. These people deserve the chance to go out and enjoy life free of judgment just as much as anyone else.”

His sentiments are echoed by Laurie Mawlam, the executive director of Autism Canada, who believes accommodations are important so people on the spectrum can participate, asserting that it is a “fundamental and basic right of all Canadians.”

“Many people living with autism spectrum disorder have difficulty processing sensory information such as sounds, sights, or smells,” explains Mawlam, “When sensory inputs are reduced, it results in a pleasurable experience as opposed to an overwhelming experience.”

The definition of autism has changed over time. People on the spectrum vary greatly in levels of functioning and independence, but commonalities across the spectrum include communication deficits, difficulty reading nonverbal interactions and a strong dependence on routine.

As of March 2014, the latest available statistics from Autism Speaks Canada state that one in 68 children are now affected by an autism spectrum disorder. This information is approximately 30 per cent higher than the statistics from 2008 (1 in 88). This increase is largely attributed to a widening range of diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder and increasing awareness about the symptoms. 

The latest available statistics from Autism Speaks Canada report that as of March 2014, 1 in 68 children in Canada are affected by an autism spectrum disorder. Illustration by Megan MacKayThe specialized screenings began at Canyon Meadows Cinema after owners saw many community autism groups express interest in coming to the movies. They say they began to feel the presence of the autism community, and realized they were in a great position to cater to them.

Danielle Hunter, manager at Canyon Meadows Cinemas, says that the response has been widely positive, with families relishing the judgment-free environment and the opportunity to fully enjoy something as simple as going to the movies.

“You don’t realize how much they go through in public, all of these stressors that could trigger them at any time,” explains Hunter, “So for us to be able to give them an environment where we understand that and that behavior is normal, that’s exciting for some people.”

Updates on the next autism-friendly movie screening at both Canyon Meadows Cinemas and Cineplex Sunridge can be found on their websites or Facebook pages.

Thumbnail courtesey of Sumire-Lover by Creative Commons.

mmackay@cjournal.ca

The editor responsible for this article is Dan Ball, dball@cjournal.ca