Lining up for premieres, loading up on popcorn and squeezing into the last seat of sold-out films defines movie-going for many, but it’s easy to take for granted the ability to jump in a car and zip over to the movie theater. For those who are affected by disabilities or are classified on the autism spectrum, sitting politely and quietly during a movie can be difficult. Especially for families with autistic or disabled children, movie-going may turn into a stressful excursion that can frustrate parents, children and perhaps even other people in the theater.
Dr. Catherine Lord — former director of the Autism & Communication Disorders Center at the ‘U’ and present director of the new Institute for Brain Development at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill-Cornell Medical College — is at the forefront of autism research and treatment. According to Lord, individuals with autism may have difficulty sitting through regular movie screenings due to repetitive motor gesticulations and an inability to connect with the film material, which can stem from symptoms of their disorders.
To help families with special needs, Rave Motion Pictures’s Sensory Sensitive Cinema provides a new way to experience the delight of seeing a film on the big screen.
“Sensory Sensitive Cinema is the normal feature with a couple exceptions,” said Kelly Mervyn, general manager of Rave Motion Pictures. “The lights are going to be up, the sound’s going to be lower and the folks seeing it will be mainly families with disabilities, such as autism or Down syndrome, who want to go see a movie but don’t want to have the problem of a child being loud or disruptive.”
By altering certain aspects of the movie-going experience, Rave Cinemas provides film-lovers with disabilities the chance to see their favorite movies in an environment more accommodative to their needs.
Every fourth Saturday of each month, families can travel to Rave in order to experience Sensory Sensitive Cinema. Each person who buys a ticket for a movie is told of the viewing’s special features.
Sensory Sensitive Cinema sprung from collaborative meetings that set out to widen the population of Rave Cinemas visitors.
“We were trying to come up with ways to get more folks to come,” Mervyn said. “Most of these ideas come from that direction, and (Sensory Sensitive Cinema) in particular is highly important to us.”
Sensory Sensitive Cinema is suitable for people of all ages, as the atmosphere is more relaxed and calming for anyone affected by disabilities.
“Our next movie, ‘Journey 2: The Mysterious Island,’ is not only for children,” Mervyn said. “We try to gear it towards as many people as we can. Of course it’s going to be more family-oriented, but if you’re a fan of a movie, your age won’t matter.”
Though experiences such as Sensory Sensitive Cinema cater to the needs of individuals with disabilities, there is still a shroud of obscurity surrounding disorders like autism, according to Lord.
“About 1 percent (of people in the U.S. are affected by autism), which covers the whole range — from kids and adults that have very severe intellectual disabilities, to those that are very bright and articulate but still have the social difficulties or sensory issues you associate with autism,” Lord said.
This range, according to Lord, is the mystery behind autism. People may see Hollywood portrayals of the disorder or know friends and neighbors with autism, and thus picture the disorder based on a single individual. But autism affects people differently, and the key to understanding the mystery behind the disorder is to see it as a range, rather than a concrete diagnosis.
“The reason why we keep talking about the spectrum rather than a hundred different disorders is because there are core features that are present in all of them,” Lord said. “It’s about understanding the different aspects of social behavior, but there is also the need to understand the core features that are usually present.”
These core features of autism include repetition and social difficulties, where individuals express repetitive behavior and an inability to connect with the subject at hand.
“You may have one child with autism who is very significantly delayed and have another that has mild problems and is very bright intellectually,” Mervyn said.
Just as most people enjoy the entertainment that films provide, those with autism and other disabilities also want to experience the excitement of movie-going.
“It’s a great experience,” Lord said of Sensory Sensitive Cinema. “I think children and adults (with autism) really enjoy videos, enjoy stories and animation. They enjoy visual input and music, but the general atmosphere of a movie may be overwhelming. This program allows them to become accustomed with movie-going rather than feel lost in it.”
Rave’s Sensory Sensitive Cinema is set up in such a way that allows for any individual, no matter where they are on the autism spectrum, to enjoy a movie.
“I think this example is a really good one, where you have a facility that, by making minor changes, allows for a wider public,” Lord said. “They’ll make movie-goers of children that usually wouldn’t have that opportunity.”