Autism-friendly film gets people relaxed about cinema

Autism-friendly cinema screenings being shown over the summer.

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Chris was excited and jumpy as he waited in the cinema foyer for his friends to arrive.

"We have never done a cinema trip before," says his support worker Deman, who has looked after him for 11 years in the house he shares with two other autistic friends.

"He would make too much noise and annoy other people."

For Chris and many other people with autism, the experience of watching a film on a big screen can be a difficult one.

Being plunged into semi-darkness during the film and subjected to loud noise or music can transform what should be a pleasurable experience into something traumatic.

Long queues for tickets and crowded places can also trigger feelings of anxiety.

People with autism like to be able to move around freely, eat what they like to eat and make as much noise as they want.

Their support workers and carers can also feel anxious if the environment is not making them feel comfortable.

But on this morning at the Odeon cinema, in the London borough of Richmond, people who would not normally purchase popcorn, were being ushered into Screen 2 to see a special sensory friendly screening of Mr Popper's Penguins, starring Jim Carrey.

Start Quote

For some of the people we support, darkness is a big thing for them.”

End Quote Linda Support worker

The initiative was run by Dimensions, an organisation which provides services for people with autism and learning disabilities, and rolled out in 37 Odeon cinemas across the country.

Kelly Crisafi, operations director for the south west London branch of Dimensions, said they wanted to reach out to people in the community and provide them with a new opportunity.

"We wanted to work with cinemas to run a screening that people could enjoy and not feel nervous about."

They then took time to think about how they could change the atmosphere to suit people with an autism spectrum disorder.

"We looked at lighting, crowded areas, queues, being able to move around and take breaks from the stimulus.

"We wanted to help people have those freedoms and create an environment where they are able to be themselves, without causing disruption to other people and without having limitations on them which aren't realistic," said Kelly Crisafi.

The main lights were kept on low and the sound of the film turned down a little, with the aim of creating a more relaxed environment.

A mixture of young and old sat together in comfy cinema seats, whooping and laughing throughout a film which provided plenty of comedy moments.

Every so often, someone would yell out, wander around or run out to the toilets - but there was never any senses of stuffiness or any danger of disturbing anyone else.

Popcorn Watching a film at the cinema can often be a difficult experience for people with autism.

The scene where a penguin pooped on Jim Carrey's shoes got a particularly big laugh from the audience.

'Relaxing atmosphere'

Tom and Margo had made the trip from nearby Hampton with their carers and had been able to access the cinema easily in their wheelchairs.

Their carers were positive about the screening: "It's not as loud as normal, which is good - for them it would be scary otherwise. Even people coming in late didn't matter. It was friendly and welcoming. I think it's a really good idea," said Margo's carer.

Tom's carer said: "It's been quite relaxing - everyone here had a common interest. People moving around, doing their own thing didn't disrupt the movie. I like the relaxing atmosphere."

Natasha, Louise, Barbara, Pamela and Carol have travelled from Ashford with their support workers Jo and Linda.

"It was brilliant. It was sad at the end. I would come again," says Natasha.

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I can't normally enjoy going to the cinema. There's too much noise and movement...”

End Quote Joy

Jo found it much calmer than a normal cinema screening.

"The adults here are more understanding so it's nice to have a separate cinema to share some quality time with the people you love and like caring about."

But the lighting was perhaps still an issue.

"For some of the people we support, darkness is a big thing for them," says Linda. "If it was a bit lighter, more might come."

Joy and Berge from Ealing Partners, came to the special screening, supported by Vanita.

"I can't normally enjoy going to the cinema," says Joy, who has Asperger syndrome and also does voluntary work with families with autism.

"There's too much noise and movement and so on. This was about the right volume, but there were a couple of points when it was too loud and I had to cover my ears."

Berge says: "The sound is very good... it is important to people with disabilities to get out and about. It is nice for families and carers to come along as well."

Even Jim Carrey can't argue with that.

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