Toy Story with autism: where to find sensory-friendly movies

Today we achieved a major milestone: Tosh watched a new movie all the way through, and only used his iPad once.

This has been a long time coming. We first took Tosh to the movies three years ago. At that time, he was five and if you have a moderate to severely autistic 5-year-old, you already know how that turned out. It didn't go well.

He kept running up and down our row and wanted to sit in the row in front of us. At one point, he crawled under the seats so he could get there.

Yeah. Gross.

This all happened during the previews. Mid-way through the animated short, we left. He just couldn't handle it.

But we didn't give up. I'm very passionate about the belief that everyone deserves to go out and experience the world. Whether it's going to the movies, out to eat at a restaurant or on vacation, kids and adults with autism are capable of far more than we realize.

They just need lots and lots and lots of practice.

It's a real conundrum: the only way to learn social skills is to practice them in real-life social environments, outside of school or in-home behavioral therapy.

Social isolation only makes things worse. As your child gets further and further behind their peers, they become more aware of what they're missing. Depression and behavior problems are inevitable.

However, taking an autistic child out into public is stressful. One Oxford University study even declared it to be emotionally traumatic for parents. And the older your child is, the more likely a disturbance will attract the police.

So what's a parent to do?

Begin with sensory friendly movie showings. These events are pure gold when it comes to teaching your child the social skills required to go to the movies because it's not only easier for them, it's easier for you.

Sensory friendly movies don't turn the lights down all the way and keep the volume reasonably low. Theater staff are very forgiving of loud noises, movement and meltdowns.

But that's not why I love them. Sensory friendly movies are filled with families that are just like yours. That means there are not only preschoolers and kindergarteners on the spectrum, there are teenagers and adults, too. 

No matter how old your child is or how severe their autism, you won't be embarrassed no matter what happens. There isn't one person in the theater who hasn't seen it before. And nobody is going to give you a strange look when you take your 12-year-old son into the women's restroom.

That's where we taught Tosh basic movie skills. I've seen kids and young adults toss purses, keys and refreshments across the theater, disrobe, run up and down the aisles and yes ... I've seen more than a few meltdowns.

Another nice thing about sensory friendly movies is that they're usually around 10 a.m. I've seen parents complain that these times aren't very convenient, but I love it for two reasons: one, you pay the cheapest ticket prices so it's not a big deal if you have to leave just 10 minutes into the movie, and two, 10 a.m. is Tosh's golden hour. That's when he's at his best.

No matter if your child has ever been to the movies or you think they can handle it, I strongly encourage you to try a sensory-friendly movie in your area this summer. Toy Story 4 is currently the featured movie at most screenings, which is perfect because so many kids with autism love Woody, Buzz and the gang.

I researched which chains offer screenings, and listed them below. I only checked the largest chains - your local theater might offer its own sensory friendly program.

For example, we have a Tristone theater near us, which is a chain with only a handful of theaters in Southern California. They are a "cheap theater" that shows movies that have been out for awhile. They offer sensory friendly screenings the first Saturday of every month, which was perfect for Tosh because the tickets were super cheap. I have no idea if the entire chain offers this program or if it's just our location. I learned about it through a local special needs parenting group on Facebook.

Call and ask if your local theaters offer sensory friendly showings. You might be surprised by the answer, and even if they don't, if enough people call and ask, management might be motivated to start a program.

Here is a list of chains I found that offer sensory friendly programs.

AMC Theaters: AMC is the largest movie chain in the world, with 661 theaters in the U.S., so to have them offer sensory friendly screenings is a big win. Their sensory screenings are the second and fourth Saturday of each month for family movies, and alternating Tuesday evenings for older audiences. This month, they showed Aladdin and Secret Life of Pets 2 for kids, and Dark Phoenix and Men in Black for adults.

Regal Cinemas: Regal's My Way Matinee is also the second and fourth Saturday of each month. This month, they offered Secret Life of Pets 2 and will show Toy Story 4 on June 29.

Marcus Theaters: This chain in the Midwest runs the Reel Movies for Real Needs program, offering sensory friendly movies every other Saturday. Today they showed Toy Story 4 and next month they're featuring Spiderman: Far From Home and The Lion King.

B&B Theaters: This small chain in Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri hosts Sensory Friendly Film showings. The next event is July 20 and will feature The Lion King.

Emagine Entertainment: The Midwest and Great Plains are a great place to see sensory friendly movies! This chain in the upper Midwest offers two sensory-friendly showings each month. In June, the movies were Aladdin and The Secret Life of Pets 2. (That tells me Toy Story 4 is a likely choice for July!)

Harkins Theaters: This Arizona chain offers a sensory friendly movie once a month. Toy Story 4 is playing July 6.

Showcase Cinemas: This chain has locations in Ohio, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. They feature one sensory friendly showing each month and the next one is Toy Story 4 on July 6.

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