TOWN 'N COUNTRY
Loud noises bother 3-year-old Jonathan Leon. So the seat-thumping surround sound blasting from a movie theater's speakers can be too much for him to handle. But on a recent Saturday morning, Jonathan settled down in the stadium seating at AMC Veterans 24, and his mother knew there would be no problems.
That's because of a partnership between AMC Theatres and the Autism Society of America. Called "Sensory Friendly Films," the program shows new releases each month and, for some families in Hillsborough County, it's the only way they can catch the latest flick.
The atmosphere makes it possible.
The lights are only slightly dimmed, the sound is turned down low and the theater's "silence is golden" policy is thrown out the window. The audience is encouraged to get out of their seats, dance or walk in the aisles and make noise if they want.
For those with autism, that means freedom.
"When you have a child with autism, your world often ends at your front door," said Marguerite Colston, vice president of the autism society. "Now they have an event they can go to once a month where they won't be judged and will be comfy."
The idea for the sensory-friendly films came about in 2008 when a Maryland mother of an autistic child tried going to a movie, Colston said. When her daughter got excited and made noise, others made them feel unwelcome.
The mother spoke with an AMC manager and set up a special event where people with autism and sensory-sensitive issues could watch a movie in a modified environment.
The event sparked so much interest it caught the attention of the Autism Society and a partnership with AMC formed. Now, the films can be seen in 125 AMC theaters across the country.
"There are not many places you can take special-needs kids," said Jonathan's mother, Barbara Leon, who lives in Wesley Chapel. "But here I don't have to worry if he's too loud. Here, they understand."
Alexandra Fernandez's son, Lucas Garcia, 9, likes to laugh — loud. When Garcia took him to regular movies in the past, he has felt like an outcast.
"People get annoyed, say comments because they don't understand," Fernandez of Tampa, said.
Before a recent sensory showing, Fernandez said she couldn't wait to hear her son laugh as loud as he wanted during the film.
"It's just wonderful that, here, no one is going to judge," she said.
Children and adults with autism can easily feel overwhelmed in movie theaters because of the darkness and the amplified sound, said Dr. Karen Berkman, executive director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at the University of South Florida.
The ability to move around and make noises actually helps autistic people stay better focused, Berkman said.
"We do want to make the community a friendly place so everyone has access to fun things but with just slight changes," she said.
Changes like the ones that allow Tony Barker, a 12-year-old with severe autism, to watch a movie with his dad despite getting out of his seat every few minutes to bang his fist on the wall.
The last time Tony set foot in a movie theater was when he was 5 years old. He only lasted a half hour, said his father, Jim Barker of Carrollwood.
When his son's school told him about the Sensory Friendly Film program, he jumped at the chance to take him.
"The more he gets out there the better off he'll be to interact with society," Barker said.
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374.