Kasey Gonzalez’s son loves “Toy Story.” Every week, the family watches the first three movies and the six-year-old owns the small, medium and large versions of each toy character. “There aren’t too many things he shows such strong interest in,” says Gonzalez, “But I was too nervous to take him to see “Toy Story 4.” It was heartbreaking.” Now due to a special Sensory Friendly showing of the film at Yelm Cinemas on June 29, Gonzalez will be able to take her son, who is autistic, without worrying about the impact on other patrons.

Yelm Cinemas Toy Story 4
On June 29 families of children with special needs can attend a Sensory Friendly showing of Toy Story IV. Photo courtesy: Yelm Cinemas

The special screening will begin at 10:00 a.m. and tickets must be purchased at the theater rather than online to eliminate any potential confusion. During the show, the lights will be turned up and the sound will be turned down for children who are affected by sensory overload. “I know we have special needs kids in our community who don’t get to go to the movies,” says Yelm Cinemas General Manager, Noah Aden. “This is an opportunity for them to see a movie in the theater, get up and walk around if they need to, and maybe make some friends. The parents won’t have to worry about disturbing other parents.”

Like many autistic children, Gonzalez’s son makes noises when he’s excited. Up until recently, she says, his main form of communication was screaming in frustration as he tried to make himself understood. “Because of this, public outings have always been very hard for us,” she explains. “Most of the time we just chose not to go places because of how much of a sensory overload it was for our son. Since he is unable to tell us what’s wrong, there’s no way to help him be more comfortable in certain environments.”

The family moved to Yelm from Houston, where sensory screenings and events were more common. But once they’d moved to Washington, it was hard to find places where they could take their boy. As a naturally shy person, Gonzalez was reluctant to speak up but when she heard that Toy Story 4 was coming to Yelm Cinemas – during Autism Awareness Month, no less – she had to act.

Yelm Cinemas theater
During the screening, the lights will be turned up and the sound turned down to minimize the sensory impact. Photo courtesy: Yelm Cinemas

Previously the theater had conducted similar events for groups who had paid for a private screening, says Aden, but those had never been open to the public. On hearing about the earlier showings, Gonzalez decided to step out of her comfort zone and contact the theater. “Their response was immediate, and I was excited to see how genuine their interest was in my request,” she says. “This means so much to me. I can take my son to see his favorite characters on the big screen and allow him to have a true ‘going to the movies’ experience like all kiddos deserve. I will not have to worry about his happy noises bothering others.”

The idea of Sensory Friendly Films began in 2007 when Marianne Ross, the mother of an autistic seven-year-old daughter, took her to a film starring one of her favorite actors. Although it was an early showing, a few others in the audience complained when young Meaghan began to flap her hands, twirl and jump up and down once her hero came on screen. The manager asked the family to leave.

Yelm Cinemas lobby
Tickets can be purchased at the cinemas lobby rather than online to avoid any confusion. Photo courtesy: Yelm Cinemas

The next day Ross contacted the General Manager of her local Maryland AMC theater and requested a Sensory Friendly screening for children like her daughter. After she spread the word through the regional Autism Society Affiliate, 300 people showed up for the special showing and the manager began offering three such events per month. The idea has continued to gain momentum in theaters throughout the country ever since.

Yelm Cinemas will offer one Sensory Friendly movie per month for the rest of the summer, says Aden. “If it goes well and we get a good response, we’ll do it for the rest of the year.”

That’s good news for parents like Gonzalez. “It’s a great example of a place our special needs kids would enjoy visiting in the right Sensory Friendly atmosphere,” she says. “I’m so grateful to Yelm Cinemas for taking the time to listen to this Autism mom’s concerns and jumping at the chance to try something that helps our special needs kiddos feel more included.”

Call Yelm Cinemas at 360-458-8933 for more info.


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