As an adult living with an autism spectrum condition, largely affecting my sensory processing abilities, there are certain aspects of visiting a cinema that always hinder my experience no matter what I do. Bright green neon emergency exit signs always exist in my peripheral vision, I cannot guarantee a seat that isn’t directly next to another paying customer, I cannot rewind the film if I missed something important due to there being too much sensory information, and I can’t control the volume of the film if I am struggling to focus on sounds properly.
These are known parts of the cinema going experience, and I do what I can on a personal level to mitigate those issues. What I don’t however do as a method of improving my experience is attend specially marked Autism Friendly screenings of movies. I routinely get them recommended to my by non autistic friends and family members who’ve seen them mentioned in passing but not looked properly into what they are. The concept is often misunderstood at a core level.
This is not because Autism Friendly screenings are inherently bad things to exist, quite the contrary. I don’t attend Autism Friendly screenings because autism is a spectrum, and the one size fits all approach of autism screenings is tailored to one type of autistic individual over another.
Again, this isn’t to say the current form in which they exist is flawed. They currently exist in a form beneficial to many, but by no means all, and I want to take the time to explain why their marketing is a little misleading conceptually.
Taking UK cinema chains Odeon and Vue as example cases, both cinemas do offer some potentially beneficial changes as part of their Autism Friendly screenings. In isolation, the idea of slight room lighting does help me, in that it makes the exit door lights less comparatively bright and more easily ignorable while watching the film. The ability to openly bring in my own texture friendly food and drink is useful, but if I’m being honest I do that already anyway in regular screenings. A lack of adverts, while not a huge change, does allow me to more accurately predict when a film will end, and makes me more comfortable slotting it into my day, and slightly reduced audio volume levels do make it a little easier for me to focus on the film.
However, a lot of additional factors are introduced by the nature of an autism friendly screening that are definitely not to my benefit. Most notably, the presence of other autistic individuals.
While lower volume and higher ambient light are useful in isolation, when paired with the additional movement and noises that accompany an autism targeted audience, I end up being more aware of the sensory information created by my fellow attendees. People moving and making noises is extra information, not drowned out by the lack of light or the high volume, and can ultimately make it harder for me to focus. As much as I struggle with loud single source volume, I struggle more with multiple sources of sensory information I cannot predict.
Also of note, autism friendly screenings are almost exclusively for films with U and PG ratings, which limits the range of films available someone like me can experience in that environment.
Cutting to the chase, autism friendly screenings are really screenings designed primarily for young or non verbal autistic individuals and their families. That’s by no means a problem. The lighting and volume changes in those screenings are definitely beneficial, and a heightened tolerance for volume and movement likely mean those accompanying the autistic individual do not need to be as self conscious while watching the film. They’re just not one size fits all experiences.
If I as an adult could attend an autism friendly screening with the same lighting and volume changes, the same alterations to food and drink policy, but a wider variety of movie types available and the knowledge that I was attending with other autistic adults who were like me wanting to avoid sensory distraction, I would probably attend those fairly regularly.
As it currently stands, I just sneak my own food in, try to place my hand so it blocks out the exit light, pop in earplugs to dampen noise and hope the seat next to me stays empty.
Autism friendly screenings exist, and I am glad they do, but if your autistic friend would rather not attend one, it may be because much like the Autistic Spectrum itself, these screenings are not one size fits all. The Cinema variables are all correct and beneficial in isolation, but do not help me when practically applied.