It’s a rainy Tuesday morning, definitely not a common time to go to the movies. The theater is totally empty 10 minutes before the film starts. Suddenly, a family with a baby arrives. Right behind them, two women with a toddler girl. Once the movie starts, a few more people pop in to complete the audience for the screening of “Dr. Strange.”
The theater looks like any other, except that in this one the lights aren’t completely off and the sound volume doesn’t make the seats shake. No advertisements or trailers are screened. Just a brief welcome clip and the film starts right away.
The young girl in the audience is excited and she shows it by laughing and talking loud. And nobody complains.
This moment is unlikely to be seen in most theaters. In this room, however, it’s all good. It’s called Alamo for All, an initiative crafted by the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chain and the Autism Society of Central Texas with a goal to create an ideal environment for families with young children and people with special sensory needs so they can all enjoy the film-watching experience.
“When ‘Star Wars Episode VII’ came out in 2015, parents were so excited to share the film with their kids, but we knew that it would be challenging for kids with autism to adhere to our strict no-talking policy,” Alamo Drafthouse community engagement team member Amy Averett said. “We’ve always done weekly ‘Baby Day’ screenings, but we recognized the need to rename it to ‘Alamo for All,’ so teens and adult guests with sensory needs would also feel welcome at these shows.”
The whole idea is to create a more relaxed cinema atmosphere and a less sensory overwhelming experience for people with autism.
“One common characteristic of individuals with autism is that they can be oversensitive or sometimes they are under sensitive,” explained Lindsay Birchfield with Behavioral Innovations, an organization that provides treatment to people with autism in Texas. “They have different responses to environmental factors such as light and sounds, which would probably make going to the movies a difficult activity.”
“Alamo for All” screenings have the room lights dimmed, but not totally off, and the volume is lower than usual. Also, the very famous Alamo Drafthouse no-talking, no-disruptions and no-latecomers policies are relaxed.
“Some of the people with autism make noises, or scream ‘what is that?,’ or need to get up and flap,” Executive Director of the Autism Society of Central Texas Suzanne Potts said. “If it’s too loud, they cover their ears. If their senses are being attacked by sight, and sound and it’s overwhelming, they won’t be able to participate, they would leave.”
This special screening experience started at the end of last October in all Alamo Drafthouse theaters in Austin. All shows on Tuesday before 2 p.m. and some on weekend mornings are projected under the “Alamo for All” umbrella.
According to national statistics, autism is present in one out of 68 births in the U.S., and approximately 3.5 million Americans live with some kind of autism. Austin in general is known as a good place to live for autistic individuals.
“Our whole thing is ‘keep Austin weird,’ right?,” Potts continued. “So, autism families definitely do things differently. Sometimes they are outside the norm, and that’s OK here. It’s not seen as something completely different.”
Autism is considered a snowflake disorder, since no two individuals are alike.
“I think delay in communication, a core feature of autism, is something that can impact their ability to participate in community events such as going to the movies or going out to a restaurant,” Birchfield expressed. “The more we can try to set up accommodations to encourage them to participate in these events, the more they’ll enjoy opportunities that you and I enjoy.”
Find out more about the Alamo for All program at https://drafthouse.com/program/alamo-for-all.