Going to the movies is a part of most of our lives. But for many families with special needs, heading out to see the latest blockbuster is not an option.
In the movie business, bigger is better, and the local cineplex features an explosion of bewildering options designed to overwhelm the senses. For most of us, that’s what makes the movies fun – but for others, it can be too much to take.
Vivian Edens is a San Antonio mom whose son, Hunter, has Asperger Syndrome, a disorder on the autism spectrum.
“Hunter wants to see a new movie that he sees a commercial for, but when I say ‘let’s go to the movies and see it,’ he is crying and begging, please mommy, no no no, I don’t wanna go. It’s too loud, I can’t take it. And it’s dark, and I’m scared.’”
Edens says it takes a week’s preparation to get Hunter to go to a movie. That involves reassuring him that he’ll have his earplugs to dampen the loud sounds, and allowing him to carry a small flashlight into the theater. Even then, Edens says, he dreads the experience, right up until the movie starts.
Children with varying degrees of autism, like Hunter, are sensitive to light, sound, and stimulating environments. Sometimes, to calm himself in a movie theater, Hunter just stands up and starts to pace.
“Maybe being able to get up, and walk to the corner, and walk back, is enough to help,” she says. “Or being able to ask me a question. [But] sometimes his voice is very loud, and people get upset. But his voice is loud because he’s got earplugs on and he doesn’t realize he’s talking loudly.”
And that’s another problem. Parents worry that their child is going to disrupt others. This adds to the stress level for the special needs child – and makes it more likely that something is going to go wrong.
Brendan McBride is the father of seven-year-old Aiden, who has autism. He says he understands other movie patrons’ reactions to his son’s behavior.
“If a child is acting out — yelling, or laying down on the floor, pitching a fit — there’s a natural inclination to ask what’s wrong with that parent, and it feels terrible to think that people are thinking that about you,” McBride says. “But you can be a perfectly fine parent, and do everything right, but if you have a child that has some issues with sensory integration or socialization, there’s only so much you can do.”
Santikos Theatres Chief Operating Officer, Art Seago, remembered growing up with cousins that had special needs, and approached the San Antonio non-profit Eva’s Heroes this summer with the idea of offering free sensory-friendly screenings at their theaters.
These family-friendly movies are screened at a lower volume with few to no trailers before the feature. In the auditorium, the lights are a little brighter, and families know they’re in a welcoming environment.
Eva’s Heroes co-founder Christiane Perkins-Garcia says their organization was thrilled with the idea, and agreed to the partnership right away. Perkins-Garcia says the idea of going to the movies is something that fits right in with the mission of Eva’s Heroes, which is simple: to enrich the lives of people with intellectual special needs.
“Going to the movies is something that you and I [can do on] any given day. But for these families with special needs, it’s something unique, it’s something different, because they’re not able to go,” Perkins-Garcia says.
The Eva’s Heroes screenings feature family-friendly films, and are held at 6 p.m. on the first and third Tuesdays of each month at the Santikos Embassy Theater, at Bitters & 281. They’re free for special needs guests.
Incidentally, Santikos says anyone who would like to experience a movie without having their ears blasted off is welcome to buy a ticket, too. Art Seago says their company is committed to bringing the joy of movies to everyone.
“Going to a movie should be fun for the family,” Seago says. “Whether you’ve got autism or some other special need.”
*[EDITOR'S NOTE: Since this article was first published, Santikos has added the Mayan Palace, Silverado, and Rialto as Eva's Heroes screening locations]