Family with 4 autistic children excited for sensory-friendly movie screenings

HALIFAX – A Cole Harbour family said they are ecstatic about sensory friendly screenings starting Saturday at Cineplex.

Felecia Mae and Michael Outhouse have four children. All four have autism and one also has Down’s Syndrome.

They said the make-up of their family makes it challenging to go out to social events in the city.

“They’re very well planned and few and far in between,” said Michael. “In any sort of environment where there are large crowds of people and loud noises, it really limits us in what we can do.”

“Things upset them. They have a lot of sensory issues,” said Felecia Mae.

“We really choose the events wisely and they’re less frequent than we would like.”

The parents said that makes going to the movies a rare occasion for them.

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Their son Ian, 9, is sensitive to sound while Eric, 7, who also has Down’s Syndrome, is sensitive to textures, meaning concession snacks can sometimes be tricky.

“When [the movie] starts up and shows it shows the logo for the theatre, it’s really loud and I have to cover my ears,” said Ian.

The parents add their daughter Emme, 5, once got overwhelmed by the noise during the movie, had a meltdown and had to be taken out to the parking lot to calm down.

“There’s a lot of circumstances we can’t control when we go to a movie,” said Felecia Mae. “We can’t control how noisy it is going to be. We can’t control how many crowds there is going to be.”

The family said their inability to take the children to the movies often is difficult for them.

“It’s more saddening than anything to know that lots of activities, we can’t necessarily be involved in. We would really like the kids to have that experience that other kids have,” said Michael.

“It’s not fun when you’re sitting there watching a movie and your child has their hands over their ears for half the time,” said Felecia Mae.

Both were thrilled when they heard Cineplex Entertainment will roll out sensory friendly screenings for children with autism and other sensory disorders.

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The screenings, which take place at off-peak hours, include increased lighting in the theatres, lower audio levels during movies, smaller crowds and a calm zone for parents and their children. Outside food will also be allowed at the theatre.

“It just gives the kids a chance to have an experience that all kids have. It takes the stress off to know there are so many things taken care of and to know we’re in an environment where, if the kids do happen to have a meltdown, it’s not going to be quite as stressful,” said Michael.

“It means a lot. Just to be able to go out and have people around that are understanding, that aren’t going to judge you if your child is having a meltdown,” said Felecia Mae.

Corey Murphy, the manager of the Scotiabank Theatre in Bayers Lake, said he is also looking forward to the unique screenings. His young son Ethan has autism.

“I feel it’ll be a great time for him to enjoy these surroundings around him. If he does need a moment for himself, it’s no problem for me to remove him from the theatre, go into the calm zone and bring him back in when he’s ready,” Murphy said.

Murphy adds that the purpose of the special screenings is to give the children an environment that isn’t overly stimulating.

“I think it’s a great opportunity to have people in our facility who may never have been to the theatre before or have gone to the theatres in the past and felt it was too overwhelming. We want to make it as relaxed as possible,” he said.

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Parent Jen Morris has a daughter, Sadie, 5, who has autism.

She hopes the sensory friendly screenings at Cineplex are a sign of things to come in Halifax. Morris adds that outings, such as trips to the library and cosmic bowling, can be difficult for her daughter.

“I would like to see larger organizations take this as an initiative and follow in the footsteps of Cineplex and just look at sensory options and maybe reduce some of the sensory experiences the kids are having,” she said.

The program at Cineplex was developed with Autism Speaks Canada and is available at 12 locations across the country.

The first screening is at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday at Scotiabank Theatre. The theatre will show The Sponge Bob Movie: Sponge Out of Water. The screenings will be every four to six weeks, depending on when family friendly titles are released.

Admission is not free, however, all patrons will pay the cost of a children’s ticket.

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