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Theater offers ‘sensory-friendly’ film for children with disabilities

Jennifer Davidson

Four-year-old Jack Sander is picking up puzzle pieces in his living room. For a four-year-old, he’s got it pretty good:  loving parents, a beautiful home on a golf course, a little brother, and some pretty cool toys. But there’s one thing he’s never been able to do.

“Jack has never been able to even try to go to the movies before,” says Dawn Sander, his mother.

“He’s so sensory-seeking—he can’t sit still now—that there’s no way he could go to an hour-and-a-half movie, where the lights are off, and you sit still, and you don’t talk, with the noise very loud,” Sander says.

Jack has developmental delay, issues with his vision and severe speech delay. He also has sensory processing disorder.  

“He is over-stimulated and under-stimulated by different things that a typical child might just find normal,” Sander says. “Jack just can’t handle it.”

When the animated film “Winnie-the-Pooh” came to the local theater, Jack’s friends all went to see it. Dawn considered going, but knew it was too much of a gamble.

That’s why she was moved to tears when she went to the Facebook page of the local theater, The Glass Sword Cinema, and learned that it’s offering a sensory-friendly movie just for kids like Jack.

“For a sensory-friendly show, what we do is, we leave the lights on in the theater,” says Clint Corman, technical manager at the theater.

Credit Jennifer Davidson / KSMU
The Glass Sword Cinema is an independently-owned movie theater in West Plains that serves a 50-100 mile radius of very rural landscape.

“We turn the sound down, so it’s not quite so loud.  And the audience is free to express themselves however they want. They can sing along. They can clap. They can dance. There’s not going to be any judgment from people,” Corman says.

Corman says his co-worker has a degree in education, and has worked with special needs kids. When that co-worker asked whether the theater could pull this off, owners Gary and Regina York said, “You bet we can.”

“So, we immediately put it up on Facebook. It was late at night, and I just put it up there and went to sleep," Corman says.

The next day, he woke up to hundreds of “likes” and a long stream of comments – comments, such as “This is amazing,” “I can’t believe that we’re doing this in our local town,”  “I’m so excited” or “We can’t wait for this to happen.” 

“It was all positive,” Corman says.

So, the Glass Sword Cinema, which has six screens, is preparing to open its doors at a special time, and load the animated film Monsters University in all of its theaters. At the West Plains theater, the owners didn’t take a market sample before making their decision. They just did it.  In doing so, it’s kind of become the little theater that could.

Dawn Sander says she and other parents of children with disabilities crave normalcy—for themselves, and for their children. She and her son, Jack, are planning to get a taste of that normalcy when they go on their first “Mommy-son” date to the movies. She says there’s no guarantee Jack will even make it through this movie, but at least he’s now able to try.

The sensory-friendly Monsters University in 2-D will show at the Glass Sword Cinema in West Plains at 10 a.m. on Sat., June 29.

This story originally aired as part of Business Beat, a weekly program about business and economics in mid-Missouri.