Lights Up, Volume Down and Feel Free to Talk, Shout and Sing 

At sensory-friendly screenings, autistic audience members are the stars

click to enlarge A team from Community Partnerships of Idaho facilitates the sensory-free screenings at the Country Club Reel Theatre.

Kelsey Hawes

A team from Community Partnerships of Idaho facilitates the sensory-free screenings at the Country Club Reel Theatre.

Kermit, Fozzie and Miss Piggy were having a grand old time up on the big screen, with a some comic support from their Muppets Most Wanted co-stars Tina Fey and Ricky Gervais. But the real movie magic on this particular Saturday morning at Boise's Country Club Reel Theatre on Overland Road was coming from the audience--with their squeals of delight being particularly delightful.

The audience included infants, toddlers and adults diagnosed with different levels of Autism Spectrum Disorder, and their manifestations of affection, confusion and everything in between filled the auditorium with a glorious chaos.

"Think about your own experience when you go to the movies," said Sandi Frelly of Community Partnerships of Idaho. "When you pay a lot of money, nobody wants to hear a child 'stimming' [self-stimulatory behaviors] or shouting or anything like that. And that's hard on both ends. It's certainly hard on the general public, but it's equally hard on a family with a child with a disability."

Those families weren't simply tolerated during the special Muppets screening, they were welcomed and celebrated.

"We had one family with two little boys--one was 10, the other 7," Frelly said, "and the 10-year-old came up to me and said, 'We have never been able to go to the movies together. Thank you so much.'"

Frelly, the architect of the program she calls Reel Movies for Real Needs, said such an accommodation took an enormous amount of goodwill on behalf of the theater.

"We made the commitment to show a sensory-friendly film for a special screening on the first Saturday of each month," said Janice Costa, location manager for the Country Club Reel. "I have to tell you that the first couple of months, we struggled. But the third month we showed Frozen and we had more than 100 [attendees]. And now, here we are with the Muppets."

Costa and her team open the theater early for the screening, but the real news is they only charge $1 admission and have a special snack deal of popcorn and soda for $3--and the general public is more than welcome.

With more than a half-dozen Community Partnerships staff on hand to help, a steady stream of families comprised of all shapes, sizes and levels of enthusiasm walked into the lobby. Some of the children were wide-eyed and silent as they looked around the mysteriously wonderful lobby with friendly faces and, of course, the giant glass case of candy. Other kids practically bounced from the lobby entrance to theater. One mom brought along quite a group: her 8-month-old, 7-year-old, 9-year-old and even a service dog--a pug puppy. (For the record, the puppy sat very politely through the screening.)

There were outbursts during the film, a fair amount of waving arms and plenty of kids walking around. But that's the sensation-filled reality they live in, and the folks at Reel Theatre wanted them to feel at home.

"We leave the doors open, the house lights are on and the sound is turned down a bit," said Costa.

Sensory challenges, particularly those from fast-paced media such as film or television, can turn a comfortable environment into a struggle for autistic individuals.

"It's hard to appreciate what it's like to be in the shoes of someone with ASD [autism spectrum disorder]," wrote Paul Wang, head of medical research at advocacy group Autism Speaks, on the organization's website. "The severity of discomfort can range widely: anything from the cuffs of one's short-sleeve shirt to loud noises to perceptions many of us experience without thinking twice can cause distress."

And the rules at Reel Theatre were... well, there were no rules. Frelly shared one story about a 14-year-old boy who attended a recent sensory-friendly screening.

"And this boy kept shouting, 'Soda, soda, soda, soda.' Honestly, the glory of it was that nobody cared," said Frelly. He just kept shouting, 'Soda, soda, soda.' But listen to this: When his mom took him out the lobby for a quick walk, he came back with a soda and gave it to someone. He just wanted to be the guy who got people a soda if they wanted one. He was fine from that point. It was such a big deal for him, and that's what this was made for."

Frelly gives Oscar-caliber kudos to her new friends at Reel Theatre.

"I have to commend them," said Frelly. "When I approached Janice Costa about doing this, she said, 'No problem. We're going to make this work.'"

Costa insisted that it was "no big deal," telling Boise Weekly that she and her staff only had to come "a bit early once a month."

But it was a huge deal for the families who laughed loudly and joyously during the Muppets' latest big-screen adventure.

"And the siblings who don't have a disability, I think they love it most of all," said Frelly. "They're not being stared at, and they feel so welcome. And isn't that what going to the movies should be about?"

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