From surround sound and special effects to crowds and food smells, going to the movies can be an experience for all the senses. And for some kids, it can be overwhelming. But kids who struggle with a lot of sensory input don’t have to miss out. Here are seven tips for how to make movies more sensory-friendly for kids—and for having fun while you’re there.
1. Investigate sensory-friendly screenings.
At these showings, house lights stay on, sound levels are turned down, and kids can get up and move around. And it’s a given that families can go in and out of the theater as needed.
2. Bring a sensory travel kit.
A sensory travel kit has tools for helping to calm an overwhelmed child. You can make a “quick trip” sensory kit for the movies. It might include noise canceling-headphones or earplugs, a fidget or putty, and any other small sensory diet tools your child might use. (Watch this video to learn all about making sensory kits.)
3. Practice “going to the movies.”
Anxiety and sensory processing issues often go hand in hand. This is especially true if your child isn’t prepared or is worried about what may happen in an unfamiliar situation. Have an at-home movie night to practice.
Practice walking into the theater, “buying” popcorn or treats, and then finding a seat. Then, turn off the lights, turn the movie up louder than you might typically, and see how your child does.
Since some theaters show previously released movies, you could practice watching a film at home, then see the same film (or another old favorite) at the theater.
4. Choose the movie carefully.
Your child may want to see the latest thriller or superhero movie. But it’s a good idea to start with a few less stimulating movies first. Movies with surround sound may make your child feel trapped by the action. You may also want to avoid 3D movies, which can be hard for kids who have visual sensitivity. Once your child is more comfortable at the movies, you can work up to faster-paced, more action-packed films.
Also, consider your child’s emotional maturity. Not every child has the ability to self-regulate. And even kids who are 10, 11, or 12 may not be ready for the themes in a PG-rated movie.
5. Choose your seats carefully.
Choose a seat that’s going to meet your child’s needs. For instance, some kids prefer to sit on the aisle so they don’t have people on both sides of them. Sitting in the back of the theater may provide distance if your child gets visually overwhelmed. And if you anticipate having to leave early, you may want to sit close to the exit.
A matinee may be better than a late showing for several reasons. By going earlier in the day, you’re less likely to encounter big crowds. You’ll have more seating options, and there’s less of a chance of other people being distracted if your child whispers or fidgets.
A matinee is also typically less expensive, so if you have to leave early you may not feel as invested in “getting your money’s worth.”
7. Set a “go means go now” rule.
Make sure your child knows it’s OK to leave at any time. Talk with your child about how either of you can make the decision to leave, and how both of you will then go without arguing. During the film, if your child tells you the experience is too much or you can see that a sensory meltdown is coming, don’t hesitate to leave.
It’s important for everybody to keep in mind that the goal isn’t to “power through the movie.” It’s to have fun.