By Caitlin Schudalla
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — The Warren Theatre in Moore offers an exceptional movie-going experience for movie lovers of all ages, but this Saturday, it will reach out to a new group of movie lovers: special needs children.
At 11 a.m. (doors open at 10:15 a.m.), the theater will show “Rise of the Guardians” in a theater adjusted to make children with autism or other sensory disabilities more comfortable: brighter lighting, softer sound and no restrictions on movement or noise.
“A traditional motion picture theater represents a nearly impossible environment for these children to watch a movie,” Warren Theater’s Dan Gray said. “A dark theater with thunderous audio and policies requiring moviegoers to stay in their seats and be quiet make it very difficult. The ‘sensory friendly’ presentation seeks to remove these obstacles, finally allowing these children an opportunity to go out and watch a movie.”
In addition to sound and light adjustments, the auditorium for the screening will be one with sloped aisles rather than stadium seating with stairs, to allow safe movement and hopefully singing and dancing.
Warren Theatres President and CEO Bill Warren was first introduced to the idea by public school personnel in Wichita, Kan., who wanted to create a sensory friendly movie-going opportunity for students in that area.
“I was somewhat familiar with autism but am embarrassed to say I really didn’t know much about it,” Warren said. “I was so surprised by the number of kids who have autism and the difficulty they have viewing a movie.”
Psychology Today defines autism as a complex disorder that affects the brain’s normal development of communication skills. Common features of autism include impaired social interactions, impaired verbal and nonverbal communication, problems processing information from the senses and restricted or repetitive forms of behavior. Those with autism tend to appear indifferent or remote and often have unusual responses to sensory experiences.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 88 U.S. children has autism, and it is almost five times more likely to occur in boys.
The Warren’s inaugural “sensory friendly” screening took place in November at the Wichita Warren, with great success.
“We had allotted one theater for the event and wound up filling three that morning,” Warren said. “It was wonderful to witness that day, and the thank you letters were overwhelming — to enable a family with an 8-year-old daughter to take her out to see a movie for the first time is really incredible.”
Norman Public Schools Special Services Director Justin Milner said the Warren Theater event provides children and families affected by sensory disability a great “first step.”
“To have an environment like the ‘sensory friendly’ screening is incredible and so important. Public places, from the grocery store to entertainment venues, are challenging areas in which these children have limitations and aren’t always well-received,” Milner said. “This is a great opportunity to introduce special needs children to a public environment where they — and their parents — can set aside anxieties about acceptance and judgment.”
Milner added that successful early exposure to public environments can help children develop more confidence and the ability to function comfortably in other public settings.
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