Every afternoon, at around one, Alphonse knocks on the back door and asks to be let in the house. He knocks politely and says “he” rather loudly (“he” is his word for help). When the door is opened, he runs to the upstairs bedroom and hands me a picture card of our television. Then he gets the DVD remote control and fiddles with the buttons before he hands it over to me. This is his way of saying “Please, I want to watch a movie.”
Alphonse has always loved movies, and were it up to him, he would watch the same movie over and over again without ever tiring of it. These days, however, we keep his movies in rotation – one picture a day, we tell him, so he does not fixate on one particular film for long (unlike the time when we didn’t know better and let him watch “The Lion King” daily for a whole year!).
This is a change to his routine, and we are all pleasantly surprised. In colder months, he would spend his class breaks outdoors with more physical activities or just brief naps in his old sofa in the backyard. These days, however, perhaps because of the oppressive midday heat, he is forced to retreat into the shade for a time, and what better way to enjoy this time than with a movie?
His choices in movies are rather predictable, even after all these years. He still loves cartoon musicals best, but non-musicals, whether cartoons or not, are boring to him. We’ve tried to expand his repertoire of favorites by introducing new animated features and more age-appropriate movies, without success. Often, he would just simply leave the room and never come back. Sometimes, though, he would surprise us suddenly, like the time he watched “The Transformers” with us. I think we ended up watching him more than the movie as he hardly ever took his eyes off the television screen. For a moment there, we felt like a completely normal family with teenagers.
This love for movies, however, has never been translated into the outside world. Alphonse has never watched a movie in a real cinema. Once, when he was a lot younger, we tried to bring him to a screening of Mulan, a full-length Disney movie we thought he’d like, but the darkened theater and the deafening sounds were simply too much for his senses, and they completely unnerved him. As soon as the lights were turned down low and the trailers started, he shrieked and cried so loudly that we hurriedly ran for the nearest exit to prevent a full-scale meltdown. He was almost four then. We’ve never tried it again since then.
One can see, even at home, that the same things that bothered him when he was four still bother him today. When we attempt to turn down the lights in the bedroom to evoke a more cinematic ambience, he rushes to the light switches and turns on all the lights in one go. When the sounds are turned up a little too loudly, he is the first to leave the room. Some things change, true, but others remain the same. Movie-watching, apparently, is one of them.
The television is often a source of comfort for many individuals with autism. Not only is it accessible and readily available, but given the individual with autism’s often rigid schedules, this frequently provides the repetitive stimuli they crave for. Movies in cinemas, however, are another matter altogether. Movie theaters are often inaccessible to individuals with autism because these provide too much sensory input (via sound and light) that can overwhelm the person’s senses.
Moreover, because movie-going is almost always a social experience, individuals with autism find it hard to work within the rules of social movie watching. Noises are normally discouraged in theaters, as are frequently standing up, moving around, and making unnecessary body movements. As such, individuals with autism often feel unwelcome in this environment and would avoid it altogether.
Like so many other families with autism in their lives, we’ve long given up on the idea of watching a movie as a family. We’ve learned to sublimate this desire, even if once in a while, you still can hear Big Brother Alex sigh whimsically and say “I wish Alphonse were here with us” on the occasions we bring him to the movies. And yet, unknown to us, this dream is slowly taking shape in other people’s lives, in another part of the world.
I was amazed to learn that autism-friendly screenings in cinemas have been initiated in the United Kingdom, and this is giving me food for thought. Picturehouse Cinemas, a large chain of movie houses in England, has dedicated autism-friendly screenings since January 25 of this year. During these scheduled events, low lights are left on inside the theater, and the volume of the soundtrack is reduced to diminish anxiety and sensory problems. No one makes a fuss when moviegoers move around or make noise; these are all perfectly acceptable. The screenings happen only once a month (schedules are announced beforehand), but for many parents, this is a godsend.
I was thinking, how many Filipino parents with children with autism feel relieved that this is even a possibility? If parents of individuals with autism, aided by our own Autism Society, can petition for even a single autism-friendly run of a movie, I know for sure that my entire family would be first in line. I haven’t the vaguest idea how this will go. Knowing my son, I am sure there’ll be a couple of snorts, some flapping, a lot of screeching, and even generous fits of body hopping, but I would love for him (and for all of us) to have this experience. And if it doesn’t work out, maybe, we could try again another time.
With this thought in mind, I am preparing letters for Autism Society Philippines and for major cinema chains in my city. I am crossing my fingers. I am positively hopeful. Maybe we can even show the world that when it comes to compassion, there is no short supply in this part of the world.
(Column for Herword.com, April 7, 2009)