NORTHFIELD — As the lights dim and the music swells at the Tilton 8 & IMAX theater, Madison Buch bounces up and down in the aisle on a large pink yoga ball.
On any other day at any other theater, the 12-year-old’s fidgeting would be a problem. Fellow moviegoers would grumble. Ushers would whisper apologies. The manager would be called. Refunds would be offered.
“We’ve tried going to the movies before,” said Madison’s father, Ken. “It didn’t work out.”
Few people are understanding when children with autism act out in public, even though one in 50 children in the United States has been diagnosed with the developmental disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Parents such as Ken Buch, 47, of Somers Point, don’t have many options. The repetitive motion that’s soothing for Madison can be irksome to strangers, and most public facilities are not equipped to accommodate the myriad sensitivities to light and sound that can accompany conditions on the autism spectrum.
But that’s starting to change.
Early one recent Saturday morning, normally a dead time for moviegoing, dozens of children with developmental disorders and their families packed Rick Abel’s theater. Up in the control room the affable manager adjusts the audio levels and lighting with the help of Shannon Costal. She stands in the theater, her cellphone to her ear, asking the group for feedback. Too dark, too bright, just right.
“People with kids on the spectrum just don’t go out,” said Costal, whose 6-year-old son, Finn, was diagnosed with autism two years ago. “This is something special.”
At Abel’s screenings, no one worries whether their child throws a tantrum or needs to go for a walk mid-film. Here, Costal said, everyone’s had the same experience; everyone can sympathize.
“This is a place where they can succeed,” she said. “The thing is to not make it too hard for them.”
Abel started the screenings in July after Costal approached him with the idea. The theater has hosted one or two screenings a month since, drawing an audience solely by word of mouth — and Costal’s handmade fliers — within the tight-knit community of autism parents. They’ve since attracted children with other disorders, from attention defecit hyperactivity disorder to Down syndrome, as well.
The theater already made accommodations for moviegoers with hearing impairments — an LED screen similar to an iPad, available upon request, allows them to read subtitles from their theater seat — and physical disabilities. But it hadn’t occurred to Abel until last year that there was a demand for so-called “sensory screenings.”
“Everyone’s so wonderful, you can’t help but be excited about it,” he said. “A lot of people come to our theater and enjoy the experience, but these kids are special. You’re giving them something they really can’t get anywhere else.”
Abel said the theater doesn’t do it for the money. Tickets to the early morning screening are $6. Concession sales, which drive a movie theater’s revenue due to how costs are split with film distributors, are slim at 9 a.m. And Abel allows parents to bring their own food for children with restrictive diets.
“I just look at these kids, having a good time,” he said, standing off to the side as the movie began. “They’re the reason.”
Every Saturday morning since last summer, Jester’s Playhouse in Northfield has become another hangout for children with various developmental disorders, although the demographic skews somewhat older than the animated films at the Tilton 8. Co-owner Richard Gain and his staff lead the club in board, card and role-playing games such as Magic and Yu-Gi-Oh.
Gain, 44, of Galloway Township, said he soon realized that he had been working with kids on the autism spectrum for years without knowing it. In addition to its myriad other symptoms, autism disorders typically accompany a discomfort with social situations.
“I always just chalked it up to kids being kids,” he said. “My job these 17 years has been taking those kids and integrating them, building a community.”
The store worked with FACES 4 Autism, a local service and advocacy group, to tailor the program. Saturday was chosen because it’s a quieter day on which the staff could pay closer attention to the kids, but Gain said there wasn’t a lot of accommodating to do.
“Many of the concerns were quickly squashed because what we do fit what the kids respond to very easily,” he said. “It’s got the creative aspects, the imagination.”
Susan O’Neill, board president of FACES, said she had the police called on her when her 17-year-old son, Timothy, was younger. When he wouldn’t stop yelling, observers assumed O’Neill was mistreating him. In another instance, her son was found hiding under a clothes rack at Walmart.
“I never want people to feel bad because they look at it from their own experience,” said O’Neill, 49, of Egg Harbor Township.
While that experience can be demoralizing for parents, O’Neill said it’s important to keep exposing autistic children to new experiences. Eventually, she said, they learn how to comfortably handle the situation. Timothy, for example, has begun staying for tournaments at Jester’s Playhouse outside of the Saturday club.
O’Neill said she’s grateful for businesses that take the extra effort to accommodate those with disabilities.
“I appreciate when they go out of their way,” she said. “You’re not the popular guy when you’re inviting the autism crowd.”
Isabelle Mosca, FACES’ executive director, said the group has also coordinated special outings to places such as Gillian’s Wonderland Pier in Ocean City. The group also meets regularly at Fro Me a Party. She hopes more businesses will join in extending opportunities to children with autism and other conditions.
“What I want people to realize is families with these kids have disposable income,” she said. “They want to be entertained just like everyone else.”
As “The Lego Movie” plays on the big screen, the young moviegoers at the Tilton 8 gasp, laugh and call out to the characters. A few leave to stretch their restless legs and later return. Madison Buch keeps bouncing.
“What I love is they laugh and clap in all the right places,” Mosca said.
The Mosca family has developed its own movie tradition. Isabelle’s 15-year-old son, Kyle, loves end credits — “It’s an autism thing,” she said — so leaving early is unimaginable. As the credits play, the Moscas always take to the aisles to dance.
“Normally, my daughter would be tugging at my hand, saying ‘Let’s go,’ but not here,” she said. “Here people join us in the aisles.”
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