In July, the Carolina Theatre in Durham started a Sensory Friendly Awareness Film Series in partnership with the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development.
Sponsored by businesses like Maverick’s Smokehouse and Dominion Energy, the film series is a free movie-going event for families to attend once a month. It was created specifically for children and adults with autism and other neurodivergent disorders.
The Senior Director of Education and Community Engagement at the Carolina Theatre Shana Adams said, “The sensory friendly film series is a series that we’ve created to be very welcoming and supportive of individuals with autism or other folks that may have sensory accommodations.”
At the event, there is leniency with normal movie-going rules. During the film, the lights stay on and the sound is turned down with earplugs available as well. Audience members are encouraged to get out of their seats to sing and dance along with the film. People are also allowed to bring their own snacks even though there are concessions available at the theatre.
Jordan Grapel, a research interventionist for the Duke Center of Autism and Brain Development, said that they even had alternatives for people who were overstimulated during the movie.
“We’ve also helped provide a space in the lobby during the movie where calming activities are available and where overstimulated children can leave and calm down before returning to the film if they wish to,” Grapel said.
Adams said that they have had about 50-90 people coming to each of the family-friendly movies they’ve shown so far, and it seems to be well-received.
“We’ve gotten some really good feedback from families and individuals,” Adams said.
The partnership between the Carolina Theatre and the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development started over a year earlier when the Carolina Theatre reached out to the Duke Center with the idea.
“The Carolina Theatre contacted me in August of 2022 and expressed interest in us potentially helping them with their idea of creating the sensory friendly film series,” Lori Reinhart-Mercer, the Recruitment and Outreach Coordinator for the Duke Center, said.
Reinhart-Mercer said that a team was developed to review the space and make sure it was comforting and welcoming for people who are neurodivergent, including adjusting light and sound levels. The team was also responsible for educating the theatre staff on how to support autistic children and adults and providing quiet sensory-friendly activities in the lobby.
Grapel, as part of the community advisory board for the Carolina Theatre, also had a hand in asserting the appropriateness of the space for individuals who are neurodivergent and deciding what movies would be played.
One thing that Reinhart-Mercer said she loved about the space was that it was judgment-free, a place where families with autistic children can go without worrying about disrupting others’ experiences.
She said, “It can be really difficult to find a weekend activity to do with your child that they can enjoy and that you don’t feel stigmatized for after.”
She explained that just because autistic children become scared and overstimulated easily doesn’t mean they should be stigmatized for it. She also said that this film series fills a community need for a judgment-free and fun monthly event for neurodivergent people in the Durham community.
The next film in this series and the last one for 2023 will be the Nightmare Before Christmas on Dec. 9. There are films scheduled until June 1, 2024, and tickets are available on the Carolina Theatre website.