FORT COLLINS, Colo. — The simple pleasures of a night out at the movies can be nearly impossible to enjoy for many Northern Colorado families with children with autism or other sensory disorders.
Between the blaring echoes of surround sound, brightly lit screens in dimmed theaters and the expectation of viewer silence, many families with autistic kids simply avoided movies to avoid the judgmental stares and awkward encounters of other moviegoers.
AMC Cinema Saver 6 is one of more than 150 AMC theaters across the United States seeking to make a difference in the lives of autistic and sensory disorder families by offering "Sensory Friendly Films" — a movie experience with the sound down, theater lights up and an atmosphere of acceptance.
Meta Van Skiver, member of the Autism Society of Larimer County, said she wanted to bring the program to Fort Collins to give autistic families like hers an opportunity to enjoy what most families may take for granted.
"Those people don't typically go to movies because they don't want to get looked at funny when their kids need to get up and move around or make noises," she said. "It was about giving these people an opportunity to go to movies and not be judged."
Van Skiver's son, David, 11, is autistic. David loves going to the movies, but sometimes disturbs other patrons by making noise.
Before Sensory Friendly Films came to Fort Collins in January, Van Skiver and other autistic families had to drive to Denver for the program.
"We see the enjoyment he has, but there are some quirky behaviors that make people look at him differently," she said. "When he gets excited about a scene that's funny or goofy, he goes overboard."
Brandy Nelson of Fort Collins took her daughter, Lori Wiley, 12, to a showing of "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked" at AMC Cinema Saver 6. Wiley is severely autistic with epilepsy and Sandifer syndrome.
Before Sensory Friendly Films, Nelson said she avoided taking her children to the movies because other theater patrons would give dirty looks and judgmental glances when Wiley responded to films with her "happy noise."
"It was not a very pleasant experience (at other theaters)," she said. "But now we actually get to go to the movies and that means a lot because we don't get to do a whole lot of things. Having this program has helped us because we get to go out and not be treated differently."
For Sara Larson of Loveland and her 5-year-old son Davin, who is mildly autistic, this weekend's film was the first time they had enjoyed a movie theater experience in quite awhile.
"We had tried to take him once when he was 3½, but we didn't have his diagnosis yet at that point," she said. "When the movie started, it was so loud and he started screaming. We hadn't been back to a movie since then until Saturday."
Larson said it's important for kids like Davin to have a safe place to watch a movie in their own way, whether that means moving around freely or responding verbally without fear of repercussion.
"If you take your child to the movie at a normal theater and all hell breaks loose, people think you're not raising your child right," she said. "But it's not your fault. . Our kids aren't spoiled brats, they're having behavioral issues."
Parents who attended a 10 a.m. showing of "Chipwrecked" said they hope Sensory Friendly Films is the start of a cultural change for families facing autism and other sensory issues.
"So often, it feels like you can't be a normal family like everyone else because people don't understand why your child isn't acting like everyone else," said Paula Perry of Fort Collins. "The biggest challenge is when you go outside the walls of your house and your child starts to do things that seem odd or annoying to other people. It can get embarrassing."
Two of Perry's five children struggle with sensory issues.
Samuel, 19, is autistic and non-verbal and struggles with intense noise and sensory over-stimulation. Joshua, 12, was diagnosed with a sensory integration disorder, which makes him sensitive to light and loud noises.
"It helps us because we don't feel like freaks," Nelson said. "People look at us like we're freaks everywhere else."