Sensory-adapted films for kids with autism hit the big screen in the UAE

'The children leave feeling excited, happy and cared for,' say the organisers of Vox Cinemas

David Bukovinsky and his children, Connor, 6, and Megan, 4, enjoy a Sensory Friendly Film screening of "Despicable Me," at AMC Westminster Promenade 24, in Westminster, CO, , on July 17, 2010. Once a month AMC and the Autism Society of Colorado host a screening of a first-run film for children with autism and other special needs. Connor has autism. The showing gives families an opportunity to go to the theatre without concern of behavior issues that might keep them away otherwise. (Craig F. Walker / The Denver Post)  (Photo By Craig F. Walker/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
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UAE Cinemas have started offering sensory-adapted film screenings for children with autism and other sensory-processing disorders.

On the last Saturday of every month, Vox Cinemas across Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah will screen children’s films at a lower light and sound level to accommodate those who can feel overwhelmed by sensory stimuli.

“We observed that families with autistic children were facing challenges in taking their kids to cinemas, and the sensory screenings were a by-product of an effort to bridge this gap,” says Michelle Walsh, chief operating officer of Majid Al Futtaim Cinemas, which operates Vox Cinemas in the UAE.

Vox consulted child experts and autism centre teams to ascertain the specific light and sound levels at which most children on the sensory-processing disorder spectrum can safely process it – people with sensory-processing disorders are affected more keenly, either becoming emotionally agitated or physically sick from an overload. This can include sensory stimuli that many would not notice: keeping the cinema lights half-on, for example, reduces the screen glare, which causes discomfort for some children.

Because many of these disorders exist on a spectrum, or are only recently being recognised, it can be difficult for those suffering from them to receive adequate support or for their carers to receive advice. Walsh says the reaction has been “overwhelming”.

“We have regular visitors who come in every month, and children who leave feeling excited, happy, and cared for,” she says.

When I visited, to see Small Foot, a film about Yetis and humans learning to trust one another, the cinema was semi-full. Some of the audience were families taking advantage of the 12pm time slot, and others came in with children in wheelchairs. I spoke to one of these families: two sisters who were accompanying their brother, Khalid Al Nuaimi. One of the sisters, 18 years old, told me, he has Coffin-Lowry syndrome, a genetic disorder that results in cognitive and physical impairment.

“We come every month,” she said. “Five years ago, we tried coming to the cinema, but he got scared and didn’t want to go again.”

They said they were grateful for the opportunity he was given to enjoy the movies.

The programme began three months ago, and was developed out of a “Sunday Funday” programme that Vox Cinemas has run since 2000, when autism centres bring their children to the cinemas for exclusive screenings. Vox also hold sensory-adapted screenings in Bahrain, Oman, Lebanon and Kuwait.


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