COLUMBIA – At first glance, the crowded theatre looks just like any other day at the movies. But as a popular, new animated feature begins to play, the lights remain on and the sound is turned low while audience members murmur and interact with the movie.
AMC Theatres’ Sensory Friendly Films are one of a growing number of specially-designed activities for Maryland children and teens on the autism spectrum. Because of their high sensitivity to external stimuli, those affected by autism spectrum disorder often have difficulty participating in traditional entertainment activities, said Shelly McLaughlin, communication director of Maryland’s largest autism resource center, Pathfinders For Autism.
“It’s incredibly difficult for them to filter things out [like] background noises, visual stimuli,” she said. “Everything is coming at them with the same intensity.”
AMC’s nationwide program got its start five years ago in Maryland, when its Columbia theater received complaints that an autistic girl was singing along to her favorite movie, Hairspray, said AMC Film Programmer Scott Landes
The theater responded by offering a special sensory-friendly movie screening, and more than 300 patrons attended, Landes said. Theater staff lowered the sound, dimmed the lights only slightly and eschewed previews and other pre-show content, he said.
The special program caught on across the country and now 163 AMC theaters participate every month, he said.
Landes, who has a son on the autism spectrum, said one of the biggest benefits is that families of children with autism can now watch movies in a theater together – something many of them have never done.
“Its amazing how we ‘neurotypical’ types take going to the movies for granted,” he said. “We take a lot of things for granted.”
Pathfinders For Autism holds multiple events every year for individuals on the autism spectrum, including baseball games, sailing trips, horseback riding and aquarium visits. Director of Programs Trish Kane said she has witnessed the options and opportunities increase across the state over the last decade.
“There can always be more [events and activities], but I’m more hopeful,” she said. “When my son was first diagnosed 15, 16 years ago, there was too little out there. …Today I think there is tremendous drive. I’m really pleased with what people are doing.”
Librarian Margaret Polischeck co-leads Sensory Storytime at Harford County Public Library’s Abingdon branch. The library has been offering the once-a-month activity since 2012 in an effort to include children who may find traditional story time overstimulating.
“We were both interested in pursuing programming and educating ourselves more on the needs of children who are on the autism spectrum,” Polischeck said of herself and Librarian Karen Hagerman from the Bel Air branch, who co-leads the events.
“We recognized that there were families who wanted to be involved in the library setting, but didn’t always feel that their special-needs child fit in with the traditional storytime,” Polischeck said.
During Sensory Storytime, Polischeck and Hagerman typically present only one book, and use two different methods to present it, Polischeck said. The librarians read each book twice, and encourage children to interact during the second reading using props like puppets and flannel boards, she said.
Polischeck said she also tries to incorporate a lot of routine and structure into the activity.
“The room has to be pretty much cleared out and we use a schedule board…so that they know what to expect,” she said.
Mary Catherine Kiehl, a physical therapist for Baltimore County Schools and yoga instructor, agrees that routine is very important when instructing those on the autism spectrum. Kiehl has been teaching yoga classes for autistic children and teens at The Yoga Center of Columbia for the past three years. She said she often repeats the same sequences so participants can work on motor imitation.
“[The participants] like the repetition, so they know what to expect,” she said.
Around seven or eight children and their parents usually take her free, Saturday morning classes sponsored through the Howard County Autism Society, Kiehl said, and they usually complete the sessions feeling very relaxed.
“Yoga … is very good at calming the central nervous system,” she said. “It helps [participants] calm their mind and their body. …We all need that.”
Laura-Sun Cefaratti is a board member of The Musical Autist, a Maryland-based advocacy organization that hosts Sensory Friendly Concerts, and refers to herself an autistic self-advocate.
The Musical Autist was founded in 2011 and has hosted more than a dozen jazz and classical music concerts, Cefaratti said. Sensory Friendly Concerts feature accommodations for autistic patrons such as noise-reduction headphones, foam blocks and scarves to touch and wave around, and a quiet room, she said.
It is a very different experience than traditional concerts, said Cefaratti, who has been blind since birth and was diagnosed with autism in middle school.
“If you go to the Meyerhoff [Symphony Hall in Baltimore] … everybody’s talking and all of a sudden the conductor comes and hits the baton. Everybody quiets down and if somebody makes a slight move, you will get a dirty look,” she said. “Can you imagine the social pressure? A lot of autistic people are excluded from these concerts.”
C.J. Shiloh, director of The Musical Autist, said she plans to put on 25 concerts across the country next year and attributes some of her program’s success to the resources related to autism and music therapy available in the area.
“For Sensory Friendly Concerts to really take off, being located in Maryland is really a plus,” she said. “I think Maryland is a very much ahead as far as bringing in new ideas.”
Other Maryland sensory-friendly events include Sensory Morning at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Sensory Jump Time at Pump It Up party center in Frederick and Sensory Santa at the Mall in Columbia.