Tag Archives: autism and irrational fears

“Autism-friendly” movies screen monthly at Canyon Meadows

What makes a movie “autism friendly”? To find out, we headed to Canyon Meadows Cinemas this past Saturday to watch the animated children’s movie The Nut Job.

The Nut Job is just an okay movie (Bennett much preferred Frozen), but "autism friendly" is more about the theatre environment than the show itself.

The Nut Job is just an okay movie (Bennett much preferred Frozen), but “autism friendly” is more about the theatre environment than the show itself.

Calgary’s cheap seats theatre has committed to showing one children’s movie a month in an environment that turns the notion of “blockbuster” on its head. Instead of showing a 3-D movie in a pitch-dark theatre with loud surround-sound — and expecting tots to stay glued to their seat for two hours — the cinema screens a show inside a theatre with an autism-friendly ambiance. What does that mean? This:

  • Lights are at medium-low level (dim);
  • Sound volume is low (not loud and startling);
  • Tickets can be purchased in advance at the theatre for patrons who don’t want to wait in line;
  • There isn’t 20 minute’s worth of ads and trailers at the beginning of the film (hooray!);
  • Patrons are encouraged to make noise or move around (under supervision) if they wish.

I admit I have avoided taking Bennett, my six-year-old autistic son, to the movies for years — the kid has only seen three movies in a movie theatre in his life! I stayed away because I worried he would freak out about something in the film, throw a tantrum over spilled popcorn or demand we leave half way through the show. The fact that Canyon Meadows creates an environment once a month that makes it okay for Bennett to do all these things, is awesome. No more worrying about being judged (that I’m a bad parent, or that my son is misbehaving) because the other parents in attendance get it.

Bennett enjoys popcorn before The Nut Job at Canyon Meadows Cinemas.

Bennett enjoys popcorn before The Nut Job at Canyon Meadows Cinemas.

As it turned out, Bennett didn’t take advantage of the autism-friendly perks. He ate his popcorn and sat in his chair for the movie’s duration, with nary a word of protest. Other children walked around in the front of the theatre, made noises, occasionally cried. But it wasn’t a big deal because we understood. And, if Bennett had wanted to leave half way through the movie it wouldn’t have been a big deal, either — tickets cost just $5. It’s great Canyon Meadows is doing this regularly. Keep it up!


“Zero googly eye”

What were you scared of when you were little? For me it was the “upside-down tree,” a pine tree outside my bedroom window that had been struck by lightning, making its top look like a tree trunk. For whatever reason, it freaked me out, and I avoided looking out the window at bedtime for fear it would sense my unease, crash through the glass, and use its trunk limbs to pry me from bed. Irrational? Yes. Normal? To a degree.

No, this isn't the upside-down tree from my youth, but it gives you the idea. Creepy, right?

This isn’t the upside-down tree from my youth, but it’s close. Creepy, right?

At some stage most children will have what adults would call an irrational fear. Preschoolers worry there’s a monster in the closet; older children might harbour anxiety about a burglar breaking in. At age four, Avery was scared of the dark to the point of sleeping with her light on every night. I started spritzing her room with “monster spray” before bed while we chanted a mantra that went something like, “Good night, sleep tight, and keep away monsters, spiders, vampires, robots, ogres, dinosaurs and ghosts.” After months of misting her room with nothing more than water, she finally grew out of it.

Evidently it's a real thing.

Evidently monster spray is a real thing.

With Bennett, it’s a bit more challenging. The things that freak him out aren’t zombies or werewolves or Shrek. They’re things that you actually encounter in real life. Two years ago he was terrified of fireplaces. Not gas ones, mind you — real wood-burning fires. During a trip to the Jasper Park Lodge we couldn’t enjoy a cocktail at the Emerald Lounge because of its giant roaring fire. Nope, Bennett wouldn’t set foot in what I consider Alberta’s most welcoming mountain lounge. Then he was scared of diving boards. This made visits to the Talisman Centre problematic as we often had to walk past the dive tank during dive practice to get to the daycare centre (I would carry him while he looked away and moaned).

He’s also scared of our neighbour’s sharpei, as well as the hippos, gorillas and lions at the Calgary Zoo. One time he heard a hippo “roar” in the African Savannah and ran right out of the building forcing Grammie (my mom) to chase him down. Another time I joked with him in the TransAlta Rainforest about seeing a lion in there amongst the apes, forgetting that humour of this kind is lost on a black-and-white autistic thinker. Now, he won’t set foot in either building.

But all of these fears pale in comparison to his ongoing obsessive anxiety over the Googly Eye. Let me explain. Last year in Arizona we visited the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix. In the foyer stood a telescope. Naturally, Avery went over and looked into the eyepiece, not realizing that it was set up to broadcast a magnified image of her eye high up on the science centre wall. So… the first thing Bennett saw when he walked in was a giant green “googly eye” staring at him from above. He turned right around and hightailed it outta there, a stricken look of pure panic on his face.

Avery's all-seeing green "googly eye."

Avery’s all-seeing green “googly eye.”

When Blake caught up to Bennett and asked him what was wrong he said, between sobs, “I saw a GOOGLY EYE! It scared me!” Blake somehow managed to calm him down and talk him into going back into the building. He carried Bennett past the telescope (while he looked away and moaned). For the rest of the trip all Bennett talked about was the googly eye at the science centre. Forget the jeep ride in Sedona and the horseback riding at the dude ranch — his fear of the googly eye was the trip highlight.

Unfortunately, being a black-and-white autistic thinker, Bennett assumed that since the Arizona Science Centre had a googly eye, every science centre IN THE WORLD must surely also have a googly eye, including Telus Spark in Calgary. So imagine his distress when I told him his grade one class was going on a field trip to the science centre.

Bennett: “There’s a googly eye there?”

Me: “No, there’s no googly eye at the Calgary science centre. Just in Arizona.”

Bennett: “I’m worried about the science centre.”

Me: “You don’t have to worry. There’s no googly eye.”

Bennett: “There’s a googly eye there?”

Me: “No. There’s no googly eye. There’s zero googly eye.”

Bennett: “There’s a zero googly eye there?”

Me: “No. Zero means no. No googly eye. Zero googly eye.”

And so it went with me trying to explain the concept of zero while convincing my son that it was safe to go to Telus Spark. This went on for days leading up to the big field trip. Cue screaming into pillow (me).

I also informed his teacher about his anxiety, so she could talk to the class about what they would be seeing and doing at the science centre. At home, I showed him pictures from inside Telus Spark and pointed out that there wasn’t a googly eye ANYWHERE. I also offered to volunteer on field trip day, just in case Bennett refused to go in or we needed to make a quick exit (in case the googly eye telescope was on loan from Phoenix. You never know!).

Yes, it was a lot of work to prepare Bennett for the science centre. But guess what? It paid off. There was “zero googly eye” there and, after he relaxed (he spent the first 30 minutes on googly eye alert), he had a great time.

Bennett tries the climbing wall at Telus Spark.

Bennett tries the climbing wall at Telus Spark.