COLUMBIA — Melissa Stephens drove about 60 miles from Rich Fountain early Saturday morning to watch a movie featuring secret agent guinea pigs who fight off an evil cappuccino machine bent on world domination.
Actually, she did it more for her children; one of her five children has been diagnosed with autism and another has exhibited early sensory problems but has not yet been diagnosed with any disorder.
She couldn't see the film in a theater closer to her home because her two sensory-challenged children are easily overwhelmed by the external stimuli in modern movie theaters, as are many children with autism.
Stephens was one of more than 100 people who attended a special "sensory sensitive" film screening held on Saturday morning at Hollywood Stadium 14 Theater in Columbia.
The screening was designed to ease the discomforts of overstimulation by skipping ads and previews, keeping the temperature a few degrees higher than normal and keeping the lights turned up. Patrons were also allowed to bring in outside food, talk freely and walk around the theater while the film was screened.
"Previews tend to be really loud and attention-grabbing; they assault your senses," said Jacque Sample, instructor of the MU class on community assessment that organized the screening. "By eliminating the previews and some other distracting elements, (children) can focus right away."
MU occupational therapy students Brittany Hanson, Kelly Watkins, Sarah White and Lauren Chronister organized the event in conjunction with Hollywood Stadium 14 Theater, which opened two and a half hours early on Saturday to give the attendees the theater to themselves.
White said she was motivated to be part of the project after learning about an incident with an autistic child at a regular film screening in Maryland. An autistic girl caused a commotion at a theater and was removed from the audience, White said.
Janna Watson, whose son Gregory, 9, suffers from sensory problems, said the screening made him more comfortable and well-behaved.
"I saw a very odd difference (in Gregory)," Watson said. "We usually have to take him out of the theater because he's being too loud. Today I told him he could talk or applaud and make noise, and this time he remained quiet."
The students behind the screening — all college seniors — sent out mass e-mails and created an RSVP survey to get the word out about the event.
"We've heard from a lot of families that this will be their first time at a movie theater," Chronister said.
"This is our first family movie in three years," said Paula Carter, whose daughter Madeleine, 7, suffers from an autism spectrum disorder. "Before, we would have to leave or go in the lobby. We thought at first it was just (because of her) being young." They later learned from an occupational therapist that Madeleine had an autism spectrum disorder.
"For other people, the sensory experience is fun," Carter said. "For these kids it's overwhelming; they have to work extra hard to focus."
Focus isn't just a problem at the movie theater. Public places like churches or restaurants can be distressing for children with autism, Asperger syndrome or related sensory problems. Carter said school recess is often one of the most challenging environments for a child with such a disorder.
"We hope to keep this going as an every-month thing," Watkins said. According to Sample, the group has already scheduled a meeting with theater manager Joe McKie to discuss a sensory-sensitive screening for September.
"If they do more, we'll be back," said Stephens, who was attending her first sensory-sensitive screening. "It's worth it for the kids to get to feel just like everyone else."