Winters Mill to offer sensory movie experience for kids with autism

Emily Chappell
Contact ReporterCarroll County Times
The event will, in addition to the film, offer informational sessions for families, on Feb. 2

For a group of students in Carroll County Public Schools, Thursday will be a chance to dive into a world of water and flippered friends with a viewing of "Finding Dory."

But while the night will include popcorn, and even pizza, it's not the typical movie experience.

Winters Mill High School will host a sensory movie night for the school system's students with autism, an event that will, in addition to the film, offer informational sessions for families as well, said Winters Mill Assistant Principal Jason Arnold.

The school has a countywide autism program, Arnold said, with pre-kindergarten students at Carroll Springs School, at Winfield and Hampstead elementary schools; Shiloh Middle School; and Winters Mill High School. Arnold said students from all grades are invited to attend.

Winters Mill High's cafeteria will be set up with beanbag chairs, balls and other sensory items, he said.

"They can get up and make noise, and walk around," Arnold added.

It's not the standard movie theater environment, where people may get mad if someone is moving around or talking, he said.

"Its an understanding, welcoming environment," Pathfinders Resource Center Coordinator Neal Lichter said.

Pathfinders is a nonprofit resource center "offering knowledgeable staff and a searchable online database to help families in Maryland find critical service providers quickly and efficiently," according to its website. Winters Mill has been working with Pathfinders on its sensory movie night.

Those with autism may have issues in a typical movie setting because of the dark and loud noises, Lichter said. They may feel the need to get up and dance, clap or talk, he added.

"You don't get shushed, you don't get told to be quiet" in a sensory movie setting, he added.

Sensory items, which will be at Winters Mill's movie night, include stress balls or other "fidgets": items that someone with autism can hold or squeeze.

"It's really almost anything that's a comfort item," Lichter said. "Some kids are able to focus and concentrate better when they have a fidget in their hand."

In addition to the movie, parents and families will have the ability to go to one of two 90-minute informational sessions. The two speakers are Bonnie Van Metre and Barbara Obst, both of the Kennedy Krieger Institute. Van Metre will talk about managing problem behaviors at home, while Obst will discuss puberty and adolescence when it comes to children with autism.

Her lesson will help provide information to help with challenging behaviors, from noncompliance to severe aggression, Van Metre said.

"This is something that families and parents especially struggle with," she added, when it comes to children with autism.

A lot of times, they work to understand the function of the behavior and work to step back from the situation, Van Metre said.

A child with autism isn't doing a certain behavior to agitate the parents, but rather because they don't have the ability to communicate or express what is bothering them or what they need, she added.

"I think that is what I really try to get families to understand," she said.

Another important element from the informational session is it allows parents to be with similar people in a collective group and know they're not alone, and not the only parents struggling with these issues, Van Metre said.

Ultimately, the goal is for parents to gain help and support, while the children are in a safe and comfortable setting, Arnold said.

"Hopefully," Arnold said, "the parents will take something out of it that they can take home and use."


If you go

What: Sensory movie night for those with autism

Where: Winters Mill High School, 560 Gorsuch Road in Westminster

When: 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 2

Details: Children will be able to view "Finding Dory" in a sensory movie setting while parents can attend one of two informational sessions.

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