COLUMBIA — With pillows tucked under his arm, Eric Carter arrived at Hollywood Theater on Saturday morning to enjoy a film with his family. This was a rare outing for the Carters because Eric's daughter Madeleine has autism, which can make activities such as movie-going difficult.
The screening of "Shrek Forever After" was part of Sensory Sensitive Saturday, a program designed by occupational therapy students to offer children with autism and their families the opportunity to see movies together. Temperatures, sound and lighting are adjusted during the showings to make children with autism more comfortable.
Sensory Sensitive Saturdays came about from a class that involved a community service project, said Lauren Chronister, who founded the event along with three other graduate students at the MU School of Health Professions. All four women who started the program had volunteered for the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. It was inspired by a similar program run by the Autism Society of America, which started when a movie theater asked a family to leave when their child sang along to a showing of "Hairspray."
When starting the program in Columbia, Chronister and the other founders surveyed parents and medical professionals to find out the specific needs of the community.
“Columbia has a ton of resources for the autism community, but they don’t have leisure activities for the whole family,” said Sarah White, another founder.
Autism can sometimes make leisure activities harder for children. Paula Carter said her family had never been able to sit through a whole film in a theater before Sensory Sensitive Saturdays.
"They can see a movie in a way they can handle," she said.
Kirk Davis’ son Gavin, 10, has pervasive developmental disorder, which had prevented him from ever going to a movie theater before the event on Saturday.
“This is a good way to try out movies without disturbing other people,” Davis said.
Davis read about Sensory Sensitive Saturday in the newspaper before moving from Minnesota in March.
Seven families came to the show and got their pick of the seats. Because some children require gluten-free, casein-free diets, they were allowed to bring their own food and drinks.
Children chatted softly as they pointed to the screen and moved around in the aisles.
“It’s nice to have an environment where everybody understands, so if a child were to get up and roam the aisles, it’s acceptable,” White said.
Joe McKie, Hollywood Theater manager, said he enjoys being able to support Sensory Sensitive Saturday.
“These are things I love to do,” McKie said. "It’s very heartwarming to see these families come together. It’s worthwhile even if it’s a small group.”
The program also encourages social interaction among the parents.
“It’s good to see all the other families in this community,” Paula Carter said. “I didn’t realize that others dealt with the same issues ... It’s like a club."
Although the Carters couldn't stay to watch "Shrek Forever After" because the 3-D format was too scary for Madeleine, the family said they still hope to see more showings in the future.
Because the original founders of this program will graduate next May, they are getting the class below them involved. White said that 26 of the 30 members of the younger class expressed interest.
Several of them will help with the next Sensory Sensitive Saturday, which will show Toy Story 2 on June 26. McKie said he will work to obtain a 2-D copy.