If you’re an autistic film fanatic whose entire social life practically revolves around the cinema, you’d have imagined that an ‘Autism Friendly Screening’ would be right up your alley, right?
I’d been hearing about these screenings on and off for about six years now. One-off film viewings that supposedly catered to those on the autism spectrum. As time went on, I began to notice a pattern.
None of them had a rating higher than PG.
Now, being the perturbed pedantic that I am, I took mild umbrage at this, as if cinemas were saying that autism is commonly associated with children and you had to be under-10 and a Disney idol to enjoy the benefits of such a screening.
My mindset was as ignorant as it was stupid. It was very easy for me to frown upon an AFS – I’m sorry, but saying Autism Friendly Screening over and over requires a hell of a mouthful – without actually attending one. So, on Sunday, 5th March 2017, I decided to challenge that view and attend a screening.
En route to Hinckley’s Cineworld Cinema, I was reminded of a very painful lesson.
If you plan on running from your home to the cinema within an hour, you should be prepared to sacrifice your lungs along the way(!)
Arriving at Cineworld at 10:50am 18 minutes ahead of schedule – take that, Google Maps – I purchased a ticket for the AFS of The Lego Batman Movie. I had already seen the film once before so I knew that at least I wasn’t going to be forsaking 2 hours of my life for some subpar tripe. I’d have never forgiven myself if my first AFS had been an Adam Sandler comedy.
Having never seen the interior of an AFS, I was expecting all manner of differences. Swivel chairs, oversized headphones, dimmed lights, oversized bean bags. By the way, I am aware of the impracticality of bean bags in a cinema. I don’t know where I got that mental image from.
So, I entered the cinema expecting to see a screen transformed…
Not so different from a normal screening.
In fact, scratch that, it seemed just like a normal screening. No swivel chairs, no bean bags, not even a swivel-tray.
Settling into my seat, I took in my surroundings. There were at least three sets of people, mainly families with autistic children. I did notice one distance, rather than having today’s latest boy band playing over the background, instead they were songs from Disney classics. I took note of one family sat a few rows ahead of me, talking about the Disney songs playing in the background and guessing the songs, such as “That’s the Jasmine song!” It was really sweet and reminded me of my own childhood where I would wield a trivial film fact as if it were some great nugget of wisdom… which sadly, I’m still doing 20 years later.
And then to my surprise, the film started without the ads or trailers… not that I’m complaining. It’s refreshing to attend a screening that DOESN’T bombard you with cars you will never be able to afford or reminders that bankers are great humanitarians.
The only real difference was that the lights remained on throughout the film, but there were no subtitles or audio descriptions, which was far from the big-game changing contrast I had previously envisioned. That’s what happens with the right combination of imagination and naivety run away with you.
The children in the audience seemed very much in their comfort zone, and I must confess, it was a joy to see the kids get involved in the plot, inquiring to their parents about why certain characters were sad or enjoying the film’s humorous moments.
I think in terms of ‘autism friendly’, it’s not so much, ‘go out of your way to accommodate them’, as it is ‘give them the space and freedom to be themselves’. Indeed, their idea of viewing was a little different from the norm. One small boy sat behind me felt more comfortable sitting on the floor to watch the film.
If I had been two decades younger – this is NOT wishful thinking by the way – I imagine I would react in a similar to the children, but as an adult who has grown accustomed to certain social inhibitors, as well as become more observant to the aesthetics of both film and cinemas, the differences did not necessarily stick out for me, but I imagine for a child prone to sensory overload and still finding their footing with their condition, the environment offered by such a screening would have been a great comfort to them. It makes me ponder how I would have reacted if I had attended an autism screening during my childhood.
Suffice to say, the experience was not quite what I imagined it would be. But that’s not to say it wasn’t an enjoyable one. I appreciate what an AFS offers to autistic people, even if the changes are ineffective for those of us wizened by age. It was an intriguing experience, and definitely a far cry, from the futuristic, sensory deprivation style I had envisioned in my bizarre, wayward brain.
In the end, the differences were almost invisible.
Just like autism.