Standing in a quiet cinema foyer, six-year-old Wolfgang Maltby points to posters of children’s movies. One features characters in Egyptian costume, prompting him to chatter about hieroglyphics, which he says he is learning to read.
He lifts a finger to each poster, explaining that he has seen that film . . . and that one . . . and that one . . .
His mother, Karen Kenny, smiles as she checks her diary. “We’re going to see that one this weekend,” she promises.
Which all sounds pretty straightforward, except that Ms Kenny’s two young boys, Wolfgang and four-year-old Xander, are on the autism spectrum, and outings such as a trip to the cinema are anything but routine.
Her boys are easily excitable and impulsive. Taking them out, Ms Kenny explains, can be fraught due to their hyper-activity and repetitive behaviour, which she often cannot control.
The family had tried going to the movies, with varying degrees of success. Ultimately, the crowds, lights and noise were too much for Wolfgang, who had a meltdown, and Xander, who “had his hands over his ears the entire time”.
But then Ms Kenny heard about sensory friendly cinema sessions, where films are screened with the house lights on and the volume reduced, and the audience is free to get up and move around.
The sessions, run by Village Cinemas in partnership with Amaze, the peak body for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Victoria, were a God-send. Ms Kenny and her boys went along and haven’t stopped going since.
“It’s something that we can go out to, because there are so many places we can’t go,” she says.
Commencing outside of peak movie-going times, the sessions also allowed children with an aversion to crowds to avoid the crush, while staff are tuned in to the needs of people with the disorder.
“Going to the movies is something that most of us just don’t even think twice about,” says Beryl Raufer, the interim chief executive at Amaze. “But for some families, a trip to the movies just doesn’t work. The movie sound systems are very powerful and the screens are bigger than ever.
“[It] can be an overwhelming experience for those individuals who have heightened senses and for others, it can be extremely difficult to remain in one place for the full length of a movie. Many individuals with autism spectrum disorder have sensory issues, where their senses are either under — or over — sensitive.”
A recent addition to the program involves the placing of signs around the cinema that explain the aim of the unique sessions to other patrons. Those without disabilities or sensory disorders are welcome to attend the same screening should they choose.
Sensory-friendly movie showings were initiated by Village in 2012, based on other cinema formats being run in Europe.
“We thought that if there was a need for it there, then most likely there would be a need in Australia too,” Village responded to a query from The Citizen.
Village approached Amaze with an offer of assisting its community activities by providing dedicated theatre sessions for those with autism spectrum disorder.
“The screenings – at heavily-subsidised prices – would allow those children (and their parents) to access the joy of movies “just as much as anyone else”, the company said.
“I don’t have the constant anxiety of having a stranger tell me to restrain or control them. They get to be around other kids on the spectrum and have a wonderful time. I feel like we are a part of the community.” — Karen Kenny, mother of two
The sensory-friendly screenings are held over one weekend a month at select locations across Victoria and Tasmania, which were chosen based on feedback from Amaze and according to the suitability of Village’s complexes.
“We are doing our best to ensure we can offer these screenings to as many people as possible,” Village said.
Since their inception, the screenings have proven popular: around 400-500 people attend the sessions each month with Amaze reporting positive feedback from the autistic community.
Ms Kenny says the sensory friendly movies give her the opportunity to relax while her children enjoy a film along with other people facing similar issues.
“I don’t have the constant anxiety of having a stranger tell me to restrain or control them,” she says.
“They get to be around other kids on the spectrum and have a wonderful time. I feel like we are a part of the community.
“Without access to an autism friendly environment our family would be excluded from this [cinema] experience.”
Other parents had “described it as giving them an uplifted feeling to be there amongst other[s] with the same difficulties,” Ms Raufer adds.
Currently, the special screenings are aimed at children. Adults can also attend but, as yet, Village has no plans to provide sensory friendly cinema for adult movies rated M and above.
“We hope that it will become more generally available and, ultimately, we’d like to work with Village on movies for adults with sensory sensitivities,” says Ms Raufer. “Amaze is really delighted that Village has continued the movies.”
Village noted in its statement: “Cinemas are part of local communities and we take pride in offering an escape for adults and children of all ages into the world of movies . . . We believe this experience should be made accessible to as many people as possible.”
A spokesperson for competitor Reading Cinemas was unable to comment on the issue. Hoyts Cinemas did not respond to inquiries.