Trophy Club mom Susie Sheehey enrolled her then 6-year-old son Caden, who has autism spectrum disorder, in a 10-week movie program two years ago. Of the 10 shows, they made it to three. Why? The traditional movie- and show-going experience — with minimal lighting and loud music — translated into sensory overload for Caden just like it does for lots of kids with special needs.
That is, until he went to a sensory-friendly screening, where getting up and walking around was considered the norm.
While these movies and plays — where the lights stay on and the volume remains — aren’t a new concept (some theaters have had them for more than a decade), the frequency of these sensory-friendly showings and the variety of what theaters offer have broadened, making them accessible to more families.
So what should you know before getting tickets? First, just because it’s labeled a sensory-friendly screening or show doesn’t necessarily guarantee the kids will automatically feel comfortable. Experts say success is determined by the prep work done beforehand. Dr. Rhonda Johnson, a counselor at the Center for Counseling and Family Relationships in Fort Worth, encourages parents to bring along ear protection for children with noise sensitivities and sunglasses for children overstimulated by the large screen.
Bringing comfort items helps too. For Sheehey’s son, that means bringing along his favorite snacks — Nilla wafers and grapes — but you might want to pack a favorite blanket, stuffed toy or chewy tubes.
Prepare kids using social stories, suggests Denny Singh, clinical director at The Parenting Center in Fort Worth. Social stories give the child a play-by-play of what to expect. Talk your child through the idea of riding in the car, arriving at the theater, being surrounded by a crowd and sitting for an extended period of time.
“Sometimes even making it to the theater is [considered] a win,” Johnson explains. “As parents, we have to lower our expectations to meet the needs of our child first, [which may mean] not making it all the way through to the end.”
Whether you manage to sit through the first song or all the way to the credits, a trip to the theater is empowering for everyone — connecting previously isolated families with kids and parents facing the same struggles and stigmas. It’s important to realize that the movie or play is not a desperate attempt at normalcy nor an effort to force your child into a mold. Instead, it’s an opportunity for your child to try something that challenges and grows him.
“Sensory screenings can serve as the first step in helping our children do and enjoy what all other children do,” Singh says.
So take the little ones to see a new release, join your teen at a special screening of a film intended for a mature audience or head to the theater to take in a live performance. And let the kids talk, shout, sing, dance and move through the aisles as they please.
Studio Movie Grill
Studio Movie Grill (SMG) provides free sensory-friendly movie screenings 2–3 times a month on select Saturdays at 11am. Take advantage of the dine-in theaters with kid-friendly options beyond the standard popcorn-and-candy fare. The menu includes gluten-free burger buns and pizza crust. Order the kids mac 'n' cheese, quesadillas or a mini cheeseburger while watching Trolls on Nov. 12, Doctor Strange on Nov. 19 or Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them on Nov. 26.
Cost: Adults, $6; kids, free
Partnering with the Autism Society, AMC offers sensory-friendly films 3–4 times a month. The theater chain plays family-friendly animated films on the second and fourth Saturday mornings and rated PG-13 or R on the second and fourth Tuesday evenings. Mark your calendar to see Trolls on Nov. 12 and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them on Nov. 26 or 29. Also, don’t miss Moana on Dec. 10.
Cost: Prices vary by location
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
Newly dubbed “Alamo for All,” movies shown before 2pm on Tuesdays feature a sensory-friendly format. Seating is reserved, so save your seat preferences ahead of time — whether your crew needs to be close to the exit or far from the screen. Order a burger, pizza (gluten-free options available) or a warm chocolate chip cookie and have it delivered to your seat during the show.
Cost: $8.50 per person; $1 discount for kids 6–11 when tickets are purchased at the door.
As of September, Roanoke Cinemark offers sensory-friendly films every three weeks on Saturday at 9:30am. Go 30 minutes early to meet and socialize with other families and to potentially get in for free. (The theater partners with Brilliant Futures in Bartonville, a therapeutic ranch, to give away a handful of free tickets to each sensory-friendly screening.)
Cost: $6 per person
While Coyote doesn’t specifically offer sensory-friendly screenings, the drive-in experience creates an easily adjustable environment, meaning you control the atmosphere. Turn the dial on the radio down to keep the volume at a manageable level for the littles. And let fidgety kids walk the grounds, or park lawn chairs in the grass and encourage them to watch the flick alfresco (if it’s not too cold outside).
Cost: Ages 5 and older, $5; kids 4 and younger, free
Fort Worth, 817/717-7767
Lewisville (opening late October)
Angelika Film Center
Every Tuesday and Wednesday at 1:30pm, Angelika Film Centers host Cry Baby Matinees, a sensory-friendly screening intended for moms with infants but open to all who might make noise or can’t sit still (though not all movies are appropriate for young kids; check the website before you go). In addition to classic concessions, the Angelika serves gluten-free cookies and Bread Winners Cafe sandwiches.
Cost: Adults, $8.50; kids 3 and older, $8; kids 2 and younger, free
Look Cinemas offers sensory-sensitive shows at 9am on Saturdays during the summer months. Buy the kiddos a special kids' meal with gluten-free popcorn, a small drink and candy (for $4.50) before taking in a favorite show. (Last summer’s features included kids classics such as Despicable Me, Shrek 2 and The Lego Movie.) Reserve seats online or via the free LOOK app before you go.
Cost: $1 per person
Dallas Children’s Theater
Eight times a year, Dallas Children's Theater (DCT) puts on sensory-friendly adaptations of its shows, complete with free pre-performance activities that may include face painting, clown performances or arts and crafts an hour before the curtain goes up. To prepare your kiddo, download the social story, parent tip sheet (which outlines specific details about the production) and show synopsis. Don't miss the Dec. 3 sensory performance of A Charlie Brown Christmas at 1:30pm. (There’s a “quiet room” should your little need a break at any point.) And enroll junior theater enthusiasts in sensory classes and workshops. Check the website for the winter and spring schedules.
Cost: $5 per person; class and workshop prices vary