By Michelle Schmidt, for inland360.comParents who run errands with kids are used to doing a few things at once. But multitasking takes on a different dimension for those like Denise Wetzel, who is ever aware of how the behavior of her children — both on the autism spectrum — is perceived by others.
“If you’re disruptive, you may not be welcome,” said Wetzel, with the matter-of-fact acceptance of someone who’s had years of practice navigating public spaces with her kids.
This everyday challenge is what makes Reel Movies for Real Needs a special opportunity. The four-show program at the Kenworthy Performing Arts Centre in Moscow, now halfway complete, is designed for families who have children with special needs. The theater provides a warm, accepting environment where kids are welcome to bring whatever — food, toys, a blanket — makes them comfortable.
As the movie starts, the lights are dimmed, but the theater isn’t dark, and sound is reduced to audible, but not overpowering. It’s a setting that is especially geared toward individuals with sensory sensitivities, such as those with autism.
Before the movie starts, Christine Cavanaugh, Kenworthy executive director, welcomes and assures those in attendance that this is a place where everyone is free to be themselves. The open environment allows for flexibility.
“In the most recent showing, there was a child that got up and walked around and made some noises — and that’s OK, that’s what we’re here for. That’s how he’s interacting with the movie,” said Cavanaugh.
That child was Mark, the son of Wetzel and her husband, Henry, all of Moscow. Sitting still for the length of a movie is a challenge for him, but one he wasn’t expected to overcome that Sunday. The freedom to move a little allowed him to engage in the movie rather than focusing on restraining himself.
Wetzel is quick to point out that all children are different, but individuals diagnosed with autism typically have a strong sensory perception and a weak social sense. So, they often rely on their senses, like sight, to read social cues. At the same time, too much sensory information at once overwhelms them and they become anxious or easily upset.
That sensory sensitivity is why Mark sits through a movie in a typical theater with his hands over his ears. It’s why stores, with their bright lights and sensory rich environments, can be overwhelming to both of her sons. And it’s why, after a while, she gave up trying to take her kids out in public.
“It was too much,” Wetzel said.
Therapy has helped both of her sons who, for example, practiced going to the store with a behavioral therapist. Over time, continued learning has made normal tasks more accessible to the family.
“You kind of learn to deal with the stares,” Wetzel said, who is forgiving of the public. “It’s a hard thing to understand unless you are living that life.”
And even though Reel Movies for Real Needs is designed to be a place where she’s free of those stares, she admits she still found herself watching for them. It’s a habit that’s been 10 years in the making and isn’t likely to take a Sunday off. Still, the opportunity has been valuable and encouraging to her and her family.
“I love to see other people get out with their children,” she said.
Wetzel isn’t the only one who feels this way.
Attendance has increased as the word about the program has gotten out, says Cavanaugh. Families of all types — both those who have children with special needs and those who don’t — have enjoyed the casual, kid-friendly movie setting.
The idea for the program was sparked when Cavanaugh heard about similar programs at other arthouse theaters in the country. Momentum grew through conversations with community members and a grant enabled them to make the event free to children 14 and under. The grant funds cover the cost of the film, and adult ticket sales cover staffing costs.
Even though funds only covered costs for four showings, Cavanaugh hopes that the program will grow and continue in some way.
“We are the community theater, so we try to reach all demographics in the community,” said Cavanaugh. “It’s OK for kids to be kids.”
Those seeking movie titles and more information may visit www.kenworthy.org.
Schmidt can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 305-4578.
If you go
WHAT: Reel Movies for Real Needs
WHEN: 11 a.m. Sundays, April 7 and 21
WHERE: Kenworthy Performing Arts Centre, 508 S. Main St., Moscow
ADMISSION: $6 for adults, free for kids 14 and under