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November 2009

Entertainment for All Kinds of Kids

By Barbara Carney

Movies, theater productions and puppet shows usually mean a good time for all. But if your family includes a special needs child, these simple pleasures can be challenging. The Washington area has several venues that everyone can enjoy, including families with special needs.

Sensory-Friendly Cinema

Children on the autism spectrum can often appear typical. When their behavior doesn’t meet public expectations, misunderstandings can occur. Such a situation was the inspiration for sensory-friendly movie screenings. Scott Landes, marketing director for AMC Theatres based in Kansas City, Mo., says it all started with the AMC Theatre in Columbia, Md.

Megan Ross, who is on the spectrum, and her nanny were asked to leave a movie at another theater in the area because of Megan’s excited behavior. Mary Ann Ross, Megan’s mother, asked the manager at the AMC Theatre in Columbia if it was possible to get a one-time screening for families with special needs children. Ross requested accommodations such as lower sound, lights on, doors open and relaxed rules for behavior. The manager responded positively and with only word of mouth promotion, more than 300 people showed up for the first screening.

Management at AMC headquarters heard about the screening’s success and tried it in other cities. “It was phenomenal for the community and the right thing to do,” says Landes. It meant a lot to him as a parent, too. He and his wife have a 6-year-old typical daughter and a 10-year-old son, Christian, who is on the spectrum. “We finally get to go to a movie as a family. We never know when Christian will have a meltdown, but if my son wants to get up and look around, I know I have the support of the other parents.”

Scott Campbell, vice president of the Northern Virginia chapter of the Autism Society of America (ASA), has had several experiences with people who don’t understand autism’s range of behaviors. He and his wife are the parents of an 11-year-old son, Ian, on the spectrum, and a 12-year-old typical daughter. On a recent trip home from the beach, the family stopped at a restaurant. When Ian finished his meal, he became agitated, then calmed himself by chewing on a pacifier. “We’ve tried to get him to use something that looks more age-appropriate, but that is what he likes,” Campbell says. A woman in the restaurant scolded them for allowing their son to use an infant device. Campbell used the opportunity as a teachable moment, but such opportunities can be rare.

Campbell says the AMC screenings, now done in partnership with the ASA, are the only time the whole family can attend movies. “Ian does not have a great attention span. When he gets bothered or distracted, he makes noise. At a regular movie screening, the audience doesn’t get it.” But with the sensory-friendly screenings, the audience understands. “There aren’t a lot of events you can take a child with autism to, so these movies are great.”

The screenings have attracted people with other needs, too. “This can appeal to kids who just have to move around, or senior citizens who don’t like the regular volume of loud movies or prefer lights up,” says Landes.

Movies are usually shown once a month at 10 a.m. on Saturdays. “If guests reach out, they will sometimes schedule more than one screening in a month,” Landes says. A family-friendly, first-run movie is shown because, “kids want to talk about movies with their friends when all the other kids are talking about it.”

Locally, sensory-friendly screenings are available at the AMC Theatres in Georgetown, Tyson’s Corner, Woodbridge and Columbia.


Imagination Stage in Bethesda has a 30-year history of offering a range of entertainment and educational opportunities for children of all ages and abilities. Professional theater presentations for young audiences run from late September through late July. Classes in drama, dance, musical theater and digital media are offered during the school year and as camps during the summer.

Signed performances, large-print programs and shows that include special needs actors are just some of their accommodation efforts. “We’re for everyone. The doors are open,” says Diane Nutting, director of access and outreach. “We also have role models on stage. Kids and adults who have disabilities perform.”

Imagination Stage houses two state-of-the-art performance venues. The Dana and Christopher Reeve Theater functions as a stage and often serves as additional classroom space. All of the student ensembles and conservatories perform in this space during the spring.

The larger Annette and Theodore Lerner Family Theater presents professional plays and provides booster seats, floor cushions and wheelchair accessible seating with an option for companion seating. For patrons needing a sensory break, there is a glass-enclosed quiet room or a video plasma screen in the lobby. A touch tour for sight-challenged children is available, and audio descriptions are planned for the 2010-2011 season.

The Arts Access program provides performance opportunities for all young people, including those with physical, developmental, language and/or cognitive disabilities. Emphasis is always on enhancing self-esteem and self-confidence and developing communication skills in a warm and supportive atmosphere.

“In working to be inclusive, instructors never change the content of what’s taught. What shifts is how it’s taught,” says Nutting. Harvard professor Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences guides them. “Everyone’s brain works differently--some are kinesthetic learners, some are visual, etc. Organically, theater is really about all those abilities and strengths coming together. We mirror those in class.” All staff have backgrounds in theater and receive additional educational training through Imagination Stage and Kids Included Together (KIT), a nonprofit providing best practices training for community-based youth organizations committed to inclusion. “We are able to serve all students by offering choices and different opportunities,” says Nutting. “We also focus on how we’re alike, rather than how we’re different.”

Adventure Theatre, located in Glen Echo Park, recently began offering sensory-friendly performances. One performance every production run will have, “lights up, sound down, and actors who can slightly adjust the performance to either pull back or add a little more energy,” says Michael Bobbitt, producing artistic director. One of the goals of Adventure Theatre is “to reach out to underserved populations,” Bobbit explains. This effort was in response to a request from a mom who has a child with autism. “She gave us the idea and told us she knew she could fill an audience with other members of the autistic community.” Adventure Theatre now works with autism support groups and welcomes input from other underserved populations. The facility is wheelchair accessible and offers American Sign Language (ASL) for one performance during each production run. Check their website for accommodation dates and times.

Classika/Synetic Theatre in Arlington offers a broad range of theatrical productions. Classika Theatre is wheelchair accessible, and family theater productions typically offer one or two signed performances per run. The company presents traditional performances including puppets and fairy tales, suitable for ages 4 and up. There are also occasional silent performances, enjoyed by children with auditory deficits as well as general audiences. The Fool at the Circus, coming in spring 2010, will offer a fun silent show based around movement in the style of silent films.

Synetic Theatre, geared to older audiences, offers “Silent Shakespeare.” Ben Cunis, director of development and a company member, says “Silent Shakespeare performances are good for deaf audiences or non-English speakers, since the story is told through movement and music.” The dialogue-free staging of Shakespeare is enlivened with music and exuberant choreography and is suitable for older children and teens. Upcoming performances include Antony and Cleopatra and Othello. Check the websites for more information.

Puppets For All

Christopher Piper, puppet master and founding director of The Puppet Co. in Glen Echo Park, believes, “There’s something about puppets that really appeals to kids with special needs. It seems to improve their behavior.” He recalls hearing from a parent about her nonverbal child who talked all the way home after the puppet show. “My evidence is anecdotal, but I wish there would be a real scientific study to show the connection between puppets and special needs kids’ ability to relate.”

Piper is blind in one eye, so his personal perspective informs his outreach efforts. He offers tours for visually challenged kids, where they may touch the puppets before the performance. He vocalizes the puppet voices ahead of time so children can hear and feel what will be presented on stage. (This type of accommodation needs to be prearranged.) ASL is also offered for shows, and the company can provide audio accommodations for kids with hearing needs, as well.

“Most patrons come to our regular performances. Kids are so mainstreamed these days that everyone is well-behaved,” Piper says. They also offer shows with relaxed rules for tiny tots that anyone may attend on select Wednesday and Saturday mornings.

Barbara Carney is a freelance writer, media producer and mother of two who lives in Washington, D.C. E-mail her at