The Autism Society Philippines (ASP) is a national, non-profit organization dedicated to the well-being of persons on the autism spectrum disorder. We envision a society where Filipinos on the spectrum become the best of their potentials -- self-reliant, independent, productive, socially-accepted citizens of an Autism-OK Philippines.

28 December 2010

Desensitizing for movie watching

By: DANG U. KOE, ASP Chair Emeritus

MANILA, Philippines — “One of the challenges for people in the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is coping with strong sensory stimulation,” says psychologist Sandra Harris, who runs the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “They may be overwhelmed by loud sounds, bright lights, crowds of people. A person of any age with an ASD may flap his or her hands, twist her fingers, call out, or rock when she is excited by an event such as a movie.”
Family watching movie

A typical movie experience involves a very dark cinema house, loud volume, a movie with bright lights, or a large contrast between light and darkness. This can be too much for children with sensory sensitivities. Even for other children with autism (CWA) who may not be sensitive to lights and sounds nor afraid of the dark, sitting inside a movie house for two hours can also be a big challenge for them. And for other persons with autism who truly enjoy watching movies, they have to be reminded of social rules not to speak or laugh out loud while watching movies.

Desensitization With other sensory-stimulating activities like dental treatments and getting haircuts, many schools use desensitization program to prepare children with autism. Desensitization is a type of behavioural therapy that can be used to help children or adults with autism effectively overcome their fears or anxieties.

Desensitization usually consists of gradual progressive exposure to the feared experience or object and pairing each exposure with something pleasurable to associate it with a positive feeling.

For example, a CWA who cries upon hearing the sound of a hair dryer will be gradually exposed to the dryer’s sound until he can tolerate it. The process can start with the teacher making him touch the dryer for a few seconds and increasing it each time. Then they can proceed to turning on the gadget from afar, perhaps even muffling the sound a little. Then making the child tolerate the sound from several seconds and making it longer each time.

Simulating movie showing to desensitize CWA is another matter.

“For some of our students with autism, preparing them to watch movies in the cinemas start from training them to remain seated while a video is shown,” says Cecile Sicam, directress of Bridges Foundation, Inc. “So, we start with 10-minute video shows, giving them praise and rewards at regular intervals; gradually upgrading to longer shows every week.”

Movie showing simulation exercises in schools like Bridges include buying tickets and bringing snacks, lining up, and entering a make-shift dark room with a big screen. “Of course, compared to simulating a barber shop and dental clinic, we can only do so much in providing a cinema-like ambience,” added Teacher Cecile.

A mom pacifies her cwa by staying on floor
at the back of the movie house

Bringing students to actual movie houses just for desensitization can be expensive. “We were barely 10 minutes inside the cinema. We had to bodily bring our three-year-old son Nathan because he started crying out loud,” related dad Renzo.

Sensory-friendly Movies

In 2009, the SM Committee on Disability Affairs, in partnership with Autism Society Philippines, launched Sensory-friendly Movies (SfM) in SM Cinemas at The Block of SM North EDSA. SfM supports teachers and special schools’ desensitization program to train their students to acquire socially-appropriate behaviours inside movie houses.

Mom holds her cwa tightly to keep him seated

During SfM showings: l ights in the movie house are just dimmed — not totally out, sound volume is turned down, families can bring their own snacks, movie trailers and advertisements are done away with, and viewers can get up, dance, walk, shout, sing, go in and out of the cinema. “Para lang nasa loob ng bahay (it’s just like you’re inside your home) watching a movie with a big TV,” exclaimed one teacher during the first SfM last year.

Around 300 viewers watched “Mega Mind” during the latest SfM showing last November 20, at The Block Cinema 1, SM City North EDSA. Accompanied by their teachers/parents/caregivers, our viewers with autism came from different Metro Manila special schools and ASP chapters.

CWA Adrian with his dad and his sister inside the movie house

Angel Talker Cathy Genovia went around taking photos and interviewing families about their SfM experience. She noted that SM Cinema made sure there were chairs in the lobby for PWAs to sit on. This is for those who need to adjust to the new environment before entering the cinema. And also for those who may get overwhelmed by the cinema experience and may need to go out from time to time to take a break.


It was Ryan’s first time in the movies. Initially, there was no resistance on his part in lining up to enter the cinema. But when he saw the dark corridor, he immediately stepped back and started jumping up and down. Upon seeing this, SM Committee on Disability Affairs chairman Bien Mateo quickly instructed that a mobile fluorescent lamp be placed in the corridor. Thus, Ryan’s uncle and caregiver, with the help of this columnist, were able to coax Ryan to go inside the movie house. After the show, the uncle proclaimed “nag-enjoy po si Ryan (Ryan enjoyed the movie).”

“Anak, we will be watching a big TV in a big room with little lights on,” Mommy Sharon told her son Carlos, 9, days before SfM to condition him. It was also Carlo’s fist time to enter a cinema. But Mommy Sharon said she forgot to inform Carlos about the loud volume! She was so happy that SM Cinema turned the sound volume down to Carlo’s acceptable level.

Angel Talker Cathy also spotted Gio, 7, who must have thought that he was inside a big playground. His Mom Sally kept running after him inside the big cinema. Other PWAs were also allowed to play or shout, without the family worrying about being escorted out of the cinema. This allowed children to explore their environment and adjust to the crowd.

And here’s good news: according to Bien Mateo, SM Committee on Disability Affairs plans to have monthly sensory-friendly movie showings in all SM Cinemas nationwide.

Some more tips For families who want to take their children with autism to the movies even more regularly than the planned sensory-friendly movie showings in SM Cinemas, here are some tips Angels Talk collated from different parent online fora on the matter:

1. Go during the first screening when there are less people.
2. Choose a movie appropriate for your child; avoid movies that maybe too loud or violent.
3. Sit all the way in the back so it will be less noticeable when your child starts standing, jumping up, or making noises.
4. Bring lots of your child’s favorite snacks.
5. You may also want to bring your child’s “fidget” toy/s to calm him.
6. When applicable, you may want to bring your child’s head phones to minimize sound.
7. If needed, give your child a break by bringing him to the rest room or walking him outside.
8. When available, purchase movie tickets online.


ASP will be celebrating the 15th Autism Consciousness Week from January 16 to 23, 2011. The week-long celebration will start with Angels Walk for Autism on January 16, at the Music Hall, SM Mall of Asia. For details call 7-903-5496.

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Source: Manila Bulletin: Desensitizing for movie watching


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