Three-year-old Charlie Iverson-Flournoy stood up in the movie theater, exclaiming “Oh no! Oh no!” Hero Girl’s golden round-trip ticket to ride The Polar Express had just been whisked away by the snowy winter winds and out of her friend Hero Boy’s grasp.
Charlie’s mother, Harvest, smiled as she recounted this moment they shared in December at Cinemark in Chico. It wasn’t just any day—it was the preschooler’s first time at the movie theater, and he was loving it. Charlie has autism, and he was able to share the experience with other children who also have sensory needs during a free, special event his mom organized and hosted.
During the screening, the lights remained dim, the volume was lowered, and children were free to get up and roam when they needed to do so. Charlie, whom Iverson-Flournoy described as “wiggly,” was able to walk down the aisles from time to time while still enjoying the movie.
“He was so into it,” his mother said. “He obviously enjoyed going to the movies, and it was in a way that worked for him.”
This was the first of what Iverson-Flournoy hopes will be many such events for the community. She will host another sensory-friendly movie screening at Cinemark in March (see info box). Her long-term goal is to form a nonprofit that provides a variety of family events at places like museums and recreational facilities, all tailored for children and teens with sensory needs.
“That’s the hope, that we can do a lot of these kinds of events. Obviously it’ll depend on what we can find for funding,” she said. “What I have to offer is the drive to keep trying to put them together.”
Making it happen
Last year, Iverson-Flournoy began searching for local theater events for children with sensory needs. She wanted to take Charlie, her eldest son, to the movies and make sure he’d be able to have a comfortable, fun experience. Paradise Cinema 7 used to host such events regularly, but it closed after the 2018 Camp Fire. Her search was fruitless, so she decided to host one herself by renting one of the screening rooms at Cinemark.
The fee wasn’t cheap—over $700 for a room that seats about 140 people—and Iverson-Flournoy, who had never organized anything like this before, said she considered giving up.
But she couldn’t get it out of her head. “That means no other kids that have sensory needs have the option to go to the movies,” she said. “And that’s not fair.”
So she started spending her lunch breaks calling different businesses around town to see if they would help sponsor the event, which would be for families with children 10 and under. It went this way for several weeks, until a colleague suggested she ask their employer, Tri Counties Bank, if they might sponsor. The bank covered the entire fee.
Other organizations in the community jumped in to help spread the word, including Far Northern Regional Center and Little Red Hen, which each provide services for people with developmental disabilities.
There was so much interest that Iverson-Flournoy had to create a wait list. For the second event, which will be held March 25 for those 17 and younger and their families, she created a GoFundMe page and successfully crowdfunded enough money to cover the fee.
Creating a comfortable space
Sensory sensitivity varies for every person, and some can be over- or under-stimulated by their environment. Josie Blagrave, director of the Chico State Autism Clinic, has worked with local children with autism since 2003, helping them develop motor skills and embrace physical fitness. She is also a mother of two children who have autism.
Blagrave described sensory sensitivity as the feeling that “the world is a little too much.”
“Everything is too loud or too bright, or there’s too much visual stimuli going on,” she said.
With sensory-friendly accommodations, however, children are able to acclimate to the environment so they can enjoy themselves, she said.
Blagrave is also part of a local parent group that helped spread the word about the special movie screening at Cinemark, and said she was really excited to hear about it. Events like this not only help promote awareness but also create community for parents and families that could otherwise remain isolated.
“It is really hard to take a lot of our kids on the spectrum to these events, because you’re not trying to ruin anybody else’s experience but you want your own kids to have those neurotypical experiences and be out in the community,” she said.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many parents have been unable to access early intervention services or get connected to parental support groups, Blagrave said. This offers them a comfortable space to make those connections and be accepted.
“That’s one of the important things that comes out of this—that sense of community being built back up again,” she said. “Sometimes you just want to be in a safe space with people who get you.”
Iverson-Flournoy said that was one of the profound things she noticed at the sensory-friendly screening—“that nervous energy” wasn’t there. Parents were able to relax and realize “nobody’s going to judge you,” and their kids were able to do the same.
“The big thing was just getting to watch [Charlie] really enjoy something that was tailored to sensory needs—there was no, I’m going to get overwhelmed half-way through,” she said. “I like the idea of a world that [Charlie] can grow up in that will accept him.”
It wasn’t just Charlie who had his first movie theater experience that day, she added. One boy was in tears when he arrived with his family because he was scared about the new experience. But by the time he left, he had a big smile on his face.
The next film screening for children and teens with sensory needs will be Trolls, showing March 25. To RSVP, donate, or for more info, find “Sensory Friendly Events Chico” on Facebook or email firstname.lastname@example.org.