Schenectady County

Initiative brings autistic children and their families out to see movies

Movies today offer many gimmicks to attract viewers: bone-rattling explosions, 3-D experiences, vibr

Movies today offer many gimmicks to attract viewers: bone-rattling explosions, 3-D experiences, vibrating chairs and mind-numbing sounds.

These may be fine for most audiences but could prove harmful to people with autism and other sensory disorders, such as Down Syndrome and epilepsy, according to Janine Kruiswijk, executive director of the Autism Society of the Greater Capital Region.

So many families of people with autism and other sensory disorders tend to shy away from movie theaters, thereby missing out on the whole movie-going experience, she said. “People with autism have different, disturbed sensory needs. Bright lights, lots of stimulation, lots of noise can physically hurt them. They are more sensitive than the average person,” Kruiswijk said. “Families feel stigmatized and do not want to feel that way going to a movie.”

The society is helping to bring these families and their children back to the theaters with a new program, called “sense-able movies.” It has partnered with several community groups to offer free movies at Movieland in downtown Schenectady, starting Saturday at 10 a.m.

“We are providing an inviting, accessible format for families, and for many it is the first time they have come out to movies,” Kruiswijk said.

“It is a moving and touching event.”

To make movies accessible, Bow Tie Cinemas, which operates Movieland, will turn down the lights and the sound for this week’s feature, the family-friendly “Puss in Boots.”

Also, children with autism will be allowed to move around the theater with supervision, something a regular movie audience may find distracting. The society has also spent several days training Bow Tie staff in how to handle situations involving people with autism and other sensory disorders.

The society is using grants from the Schenectady ARC, the Community Foundation and the Elks Club of Rotterdam to underwrite the cost of the movies; Bow Tie is offering the theater at a discount. The plan is to offer additional free family-friendly movies during the year, and still more if the society can obtain additional underwriting support, Kruiswijk said.

Charlene Sanders, spokeswoman for the autism society, said the organization offered similar movies for several years at the Regal Theater in Crossgates Mall. At the time, the society paid to rent the theater and charged families to attend.

Sanders said the society decided to try a new approach when attendance at Crossgates proved sporadic. “We reached out for partnerships to bring it closer to Schenectady and reduce the cost. Schenectady is more centrally located to where our families are,” she said.

That approach has proved to be popular.

Within days, the society distributed all 220 tickets to this week’s movie.

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