'Sensory-friendly' movies not only for kids with autism

When Des Plaines mom Dawn Augustyn took her daughter to see “The Peanuts Movie,” the dark theater and loud volume overwhelmed the 5½-year-old, who covered her ears, cried and insisted on sitting in her mom's lap.

“We got through it, but it wasn't good,” said Augustyn, whose daughter has sensory defensiveness, a condition that makes some people sensitive to things like sound or touch.

Last weekend, Augustyn and her daughter had an entirely different experience at a “sensory-friendly” screening at the Paragon Theater in Arlington Heights.

Paragon is one of dozens of suburban theaters that now offer movies where the theater lights stay on, the volume is turned down and the rules are relaxed so the audience can talk, sing, make noise, stand or walk around — things that might otherwise get you kicked out of a theater.

“Not having to worry that someone's going to turn around and start yelling at your child to be quiet is everything,” said Amanda Eichstaedt of Arlington Heights while at a sensory-friendly screening of “The Lego Batman Movie” with her 2- and 5-year-old children, the older of whom has sensory issues. “This is perfect. This is wonderful.”

Sensory screenings were introduced nearly a decade ago as a way for children with autism, developmental disabilities or light and sound sensitivities to see movies in a nonthreatening setting.

Now that one out of every 68 children has autism and 11 percent of children ages 4 to 17 have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, the demand for sensory-friendly movie screenings has increased.

The trend has spread to amusement parks, Broadway theaters and even places like Chuck E. Cheese, which last month introduced Sensory Sensitive Sundays at certain locations, none so far in Illinois. Right before Christmas, Cinemark held a sensory-friendly screening of Bolshoi Ballet's “The Nutcracker” at its theaters.

Here in the suburbs, AMC Theatres — a chain that pioneered the sensory-friendly concept in partnership with the Autism Society — recently added Tuesday night sensory-friendly movies for teens and adults, featuring movies like the “Star Wars” films or more mature comedies. That's in addition to the sensory-friendly animated movies AMC shows on Saturday mornings.

“It will continue to grow,” AMC spokesman Ryan Noonan said. “It's a tremendous win for everyone.”

While designed for children with disabilities, the screenings have attracted an unexpected audience in the suburbs: Families of toddlers and preschoolers who don't have disabilities.

Since children in that age group often struggle to sit quietly during a two-hour movie, the special screenings take the pressure off parents to constantly shush or tell their young children to sit down.

When Geoff Rosean of Mount Prospect bought movie tickets last weekend for his family, which includes a 2-, 4- and 6-year-old, the cashier warned him it was a sensory-friendly movie and the lights would be on, the sound would be low and people might get up and walk around.

“I was, like, ‘Yessssss. Thank you! That'll be perfect,'” he said.

Until a few years ago, children with autism weren't always welcome in theaters. Now they can be included, said Rose Jochum, the Autism Society's director of internal initiatives.

“These simple steps mean so much to families of autistic children,” she said.

It means a lot to theater managers, too.

Bob Thompson, manager of the Paragon Theater in Arlington Heights, said parents have tearfully thanked him for offering the movies, and it's brought a tear to his eye as well. He recalls one time, years ago, when he had to ask a young special-needs child and his family to leave the theater, because the child's shouting was disturbing other customers.

“Sometimes it gets pretty emotional,” he said. “When you're raising an autistic child, there are logistical moves you have to work out with every thing you do. Going to a public venue creates so many issues that they just don't want to go. So we've taken our theater and made it inclusive for them. This show's for you.”

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  Jacob Lichner, 3, of Arlington Heights, attends a sensory-friendly movie with his dad, Kirk, and brother, A.J, at the Paragon Theater in Arlington Heights. Joe Lewnard/
  Ethan Eichstaedt, 5, of Arlington Heights watches a movie with his dad, Scott, his brother, Blaine, 2, and mom, Amanda, during a sensory-friendly version of "The Lego Batman Movie" at the Paragon Theater in Arlington Heights. Joe Lewnard/
  Jacob Lichner, 3, of Arlington Heights, holds his candy selection at the concession stand while attending a sensory-friendly movie with his dad, Kirk, and brother, A.J., at the Paragon Theater in Arlington Heights. Joe Lewnard/
  Paul Litardo and his children, Xavier, 9, and Mia, 7, attend a sensory-friendly screening of "The Lego Batman Movie" at the Paragon Theater in Arlington Heights. Joe Lewnard/
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