Do you wonder why other movie theatres offer sensory friendly films? Does your movie theatre offer sensory-friendly films and you want to learn more about it? Have you seen the phrases sensory-friendly, autism friendly screening, relaxed screening, sensory screening or sensory sensitive movie, the abbreviation ATF and wonder if they mean the same things?
A sensory-friendly film is not a genre of film. The first thing to learn about sensory-friendly films is that the film itself is not different. Rather, primarily how movie theatre patrons see and hear the films is different and the experience in the movie theatre is different too.
Generally, a sensory-friendly film follows a “lights up, sound down” rule. However, not every movie theatre offers exactly the same experience when offering a sensory-friendly film. Movie theatres that make more accommodations for their patrons offer the best customer experience. If you want to attract more patrons to your movie theatre or get more patrons returning to see other movies, then offering sensory-friendly films and other accessibility options is the key to your success.
More movie theatres are embracing sensory friendly films than ever before because moviegoers are asking for them. Did you know that well over 1/3 of the population is prone to experience sensory overload because of an underlying disorder, disability or difference? The number of people who experience sensory overload is also rising. You would be surprised by the number of people who find the world we live in too busy, too noisy and too bright.
Movies are what you might call a sensory-rich experience. There is a lot to see, hear, taste, touch and smell at a movie theatre; from enjoying a movie to the treats from the concession stand.
For many people that experience can be overwhelming and even off-putting and is something they avoid, even though they would love to enjoy a movie theatre experience.
Following is a list of all the types of disorders, disabilities or differences that can contribute to people of all ages who might want to see a sensory-friendly movie.
Having one of these disorders, disabilities or differences means these patrons are more likely to enjoy a sensory-friendly film because they oftenexperience sensory overload. A sensory-friendly film makes the experience more enjoyable for them.
People with one of the disorders, disabilities or differences listed above are more likely to experience something called sensory overload.
Sensory overload means that the senses are overstimulated or overwhelmed. Sensory refers to the senses.
You know about your five senses: see, hear, taste, touch and smell. It might surprise you to know that you have more than five senses.
You have a sense of balance, sometimes called your vestibular sense. Your sense of balance helps keep you upright.
You have a movement sense, sometimes called proprioception. Your sense of movement tells you how to move your muscle and joints in a coordinated way.
You also have an internal organ sense, called interoception. It helps you know when you are hungry, thirsty or need to go to the bathroom.
Overload means in excess or a load with too great a burden. For people who experience sensory overload, one or more senses is receiving too much stimulation, usually from the environment or place they are in at the time. Because a movie and movie theatre are sensory-rich, some people are more likely to feel like it is too busy, too noisy or too bright and feel uncomfortable or in distress.
Following is a checklist of things you can do to offer a sensory friendly film screening. You do not have to offer all of them. But the more you offer, the more sensory friendly you become.
These recommendations make sensory friendly films more accessible for people with many other disorders, disabilities or differences.
With our experience helping the sensory friendly community around the world, we recognize that different countries, states, provinces, or municipalities have different standards regarding accommodations for people with disabilities. We recommend that you consult those standards in addition to the recommendations below.
You might be wondering how each recommendation on this checklist helps.
Guide dogs and service animals are helpful to people with disability. Both may require some sort of certification or documentation in your country.
Allowing patrons to reserve seats can let them chose the spot that is most comfortable. Some people like to sit on an aisle seat and might be anxious or feel claustrophobic sitting in the middle of an aisle. Other people like the middle so they do not have to turn their head to see the screen.
Families and children often choose sensory-friendly films. Young children might be frightened in a dark theatre or by the surround sound. In addition, many children with autism prefer sensory-friendly films. Because there might be more families, you can also expect that patrons might move around more during the screening.
Designating spaces for wheelchair users guarantee spots for wheelchair users and people who use mobility devices like a cane, walker or crutches and their companions. Easy to get to and accessible locations in the theatre (no steps) gives everyone enough space.
The contrast of a dark theatre and bright screen can be too much for some people. Leaving the house lights on or at least turned up a little helps.
Sensory bags or sensory kits are helpful especially for children. The bags often include noise-canceling earmuffs, a fidget toy, a weighted lap toy and a visual schedule of what to expect during a movie.
Meeting accessibility standards set by the municipality, province, state or country of your movie theatre is paramount. Accessibility standards help not only the comfort of all patrons but also their safety.
Audio description services, also called audio DESC, described video or video description help people who are blind, have low vision or vision loss. Audio description can also help people with learning disabilities or those who like to hear information more than they see information. Headsets need to be provided for audio description service. The moviegoer then can listen to a narrator describe what is happening on the screen during the movie.
Consider offering a no cost or low cost ticket for a companion or caregiver to a patron with a disability. It allows them too easily have the help they might want or need on hand.
Some theatres let patrons at sensory-friendly films bring their own food or drink to those screenings. Because smell and taste are also part of sensory overload, bringing their own food and drink lets patrons enjoy a snack too.
Closed caption screenings show the closed caption on the bottom of the screen for all moviegoers to see. Special devices that are hand held to show closed caption are an option.
Closed caption helps not only patrons who are deaf or hard of hearing, but also people with learning disability, people for whom the film is in a second language or people who are simply visual/text learners.
It is incredibly important to let patrons know what to expect during a sensory-friendly film. Many things may be different.
It is helpful to turn the sound down. Soundtracks are often played at very loud volume levels. Turning the noise level down, even a little bit helps your patrons who experience sensory overload.
Different movie theatres also offer different features. Develop a handout, share the information on your website and even announce the changes to the audience before the film starts.
There are many different words used to describe sensory friendly films. We recommend that you use the words “sensory-friendly” film because that is all encompassing. Other movie theatres, or your competitors may use one of the terms below.
Christel Seeberger worked as an occupational therapist for more than 25 years helping people with sensory sensitivity who experience sensory overload. Christel has sensory sensitivity herself; she has hearing loss and wears hearing aids. She founded Sensory Friendly Solutions in 2016 to bring together the sensory friendly community around the world to help people who are interested in sensory friendly living and businesses who offer sensory friendly experiences.