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Seats are just a suggestion at Carolina Theatre’s Sensory Friendly Film Series

Few movie venues allow a little boy wearing light-up shoes and headphones to crawl onto the stage and plant himself just a few feet in front of the screen. But that’s fine at Carolina Theatre’s Sensory Friendly Film Series. In fact, guests are encouraged to get out of their seats and move around. The movies are delightfully void of traditional rules and norms. 

Sure, the 98-year-old theater still has the nostalgic symphony of sights, sounds, and smells: fizzy sodas and piles of molten, buttery popcorn, marquee lights and velvet carpeting.  

The Sensory Friendly series gives children extra space and a more comfortable environment to watch a film. Photo by Gabrielle Lazor – The 9th Street Journal

But at the Sensory Friendly Film Series, the organizers create an inclusive environment for autistic individuals and others in need of sensory accommodations. The series, a collaboration of the theater and the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development, shows a movie once a month in a less overwhelming atmosphere. An advisory board consisting of professionals, parents, and individuals with autism reviewed and agreed on the lineup of movies for the current season. 

Guests can expect the sound to be lowered and the lights to be a little brighter. Concessions are available for purchase, but families are also welcome to bring their own drinks and snacks. The theater’s capacity is capped at 70 percent to give guests the chance to spread out — and racing through the aisles is welcomed.

The center provides lots of gizmos for guests to fidget with since sensory toys can be useful for relieving stress or helping kids focus. There are also headphones, dry erase boards and markers, coloring books, temporary tattoos and Dum-Dums lollipops.

In the lobby, 11-year-old Nicolas Krnavek latches onto a lime green rubber slug. The series invites anyone who wants to avoid a sensory overload, not just those on the spectrum. Nicolas’s mom, Laura noticed “that his emotions are always on high,” so it’s helpful for him to have something squishy in his hands.

“I love it,” Laura says of the event. “They just sometimes need something because the world is big, and it’s a lot coming at them.” 

She grabs the rubbery green slug. “Something as silly as this for us — for them, it’s like ‘yes, I understand the world now. This is safe.’”

Inside the cinema, seats are a suggestion. Kids hang off a metal railing. Others race up and down the stairs. Someone pulls on a plastic fidget tube, the satisfying clicks reverberating inside the vast auditorium. 

The films are free, shown on a Saturday at 11:30 a.m. The January movie was “Hook,” a fantasy adventure about an adult Peter Pan who returns to Neverland. Robin Williams’ face consumes the screen as children fiddle with their toys on the stairs. Yet, there’s not an irritated “SHHH!” to be heard. 

For families who have kids with autism, getting out of the house can sometimes seem daunting. “It’s really good for communities to have… a place where there isn’t going to be any judgment if the child is overstimulated. There’s a break area if that happens,” says Jordan Grapel, a research interventionist at the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development. 

Another theater serves as a quiet area if attendees need more peace. Next to the windows, a pile of cushy bean bags provides refuge, as well.

The wide range of resources testifies that “if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” says Grapel, quoting one of his favorite insights. “We try to make it an environment where everybody feels comfortable,” says Shana Adams, the senior director of education and community engagement at the theater. 

After two hours and 15 minutes of being transported to Neverland to watch the grown-up Peter Pan rescue his children from the notorious Captain Hook, everyone’s eyes adjust as they reenter the lobby. A handful of children bury themselves in the mountain of bean bags, the foam filling swallowing their small bodies, escaping the chaos one last time before they leave.

Photo at top: At the Sensory Friendly Film Series, it’s fine if kids climb on stage to get a close view. Photo by Gabrielle Lazor – The 9th Street Journal