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Their own day at the movies

The Baltimore Sun

It all started because Meaghan Ross wanted to dance.

Last summer, Meaghan's mother, Marianne Ross, took her to see the movie Hairspray. Because Meaghan has autism, and Marianne knows she can get excited during movies, she chose an early-in-the-day showing, when the theater would be nearly empty.

During the show, the Elkridge 8-year-old was so enchanted by the upbeat music and energetic dancing that she began to move her body. She wanted to dance in the aisles, but instead she was asked to leave the theater, her mother said.

"She got kicked out because she can't really sit still," said Ross. "She flaps her hands and gets really excited. ... I was just so upset when she was kicked out. She was just the picture of pure joy."

Stung by what happened, Ross contacted AMC Columbia - not where the incident occurred - and asked if the theater could create a showing specifically for children with special needs. She was amazed at the prompt, positive response she received from general manager Daniel Harris, she said.

"He agreed right over the phone that he would do it - no matter what," she said. "He didn't blink."

Now, Meaghan can dance all she wants during the once-a-month "sensory friendly" showings. During the movies, the lights are brighter, the sound is lower, and the children are allowed to dance, talk and exhibit other behaviors not normally allowed during movies.

"It's just ... everybody understands," said Ross. Before the show starts, the lights are adjusted until "everybody is satisfied," she said. The sound is likewise adjusted, and during the movie, people often move around or talk. "Anything goes," she said. "We're all in the same boat."

The first showing, in November, attracted about 300 people for Bee Movie, said Ross. The original plan was to stop with one movie, but it went so well that theater officials decided to create a monthly event. In fact, AMC is thinking of adding the program to other markets, said Melanie Bell, AMC Entertainment Inc.'s vice president of corporate communications and community relations.

"We take great pride in partnering with guests who may have special needs to find a unique solution so they can have a premium moviegoing experience," she said.

The movies are shown at 9:30 Saturday mornings. The showings have included Alvin and the Chipmunks, Bee Movie and Horton Hears a Who. Last month's selection was The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. The cost is $6 per ticket.

Ross said the Howard County Autism Society and the public schools publicize the movies, which are presented by the Autism Society and AMC Columbia. Ross, a member of the Autism Society, arrives before the show and sets up a booth with information about autism and the movie event.

After the movie, visitors are urged to fill out forms with suggestions and comments. Based on those suggestions, the movie are now shown without trailers, Ross said.

That's appealing to Shanna Hurley, who attended Narnia recently with 15-year-old Ryleigh and 7-year-old Camden.

"He usually has issues during movies," she said of Camden, a Phelps Luck Elementary School first-grader who has autism. "This appealed to us because they turn the sound down and there are no trailers. With trailers, he doesn't understand why the movie isn't starting right away."

Rich and Michele Schwarzman said they have seen several of the AMC movies with their two sons, Cradlerock students Robert, 11, and Brandon, 10.

Robert, who has Tourette syndrome, had been unable to attend movies because of the noises that he involuntarily makes, the parents said, while waiting outside the theater before the showing of Narnia.

Typically, the family rents videos, but the experience is not the same as going to a theater. Rich recalled taking the boys to a movie one time and listening as others in the audience went from shushing Robert to imitating him. "At one point, I just stood up in the movie and said, 'I'm sorry, my son has Tourettes,' " he recalled.

"The world is so cruel to people who are different," said Michele Schwarzman. But at the AMC films, she said, "we can sit in the theater and nobody will comment."

For more information, go to the Howard County Autism Society Web site

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