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Here are some local places where kids with autism can have fun and be themselves

Belleville News-Democrat - 1/12/2018

Jan. 12--Many people cringe at the idea of kids talking or fidgeting during movies or live performances, let alone leaving their seats and running down the aisle.

But venues are trying to accommodate a growing number of children with autism, a developmental disorder that affects communication and social skills. Some offer "sensory-friendly" activities that throw old rules out the window.

AMC Creve Coeur 12 and Ronnie's Cinema in St. Louis and AMC Showplace Edwardsville 12 designate two to four movie showings a month as sensory friendly. The independent Edge 5 in Belleville joined the trend last fall.

"We show a current film, but we turn the sound down and turn the lights up," said Mary Dahm-Schell, co-owner of The Edge entertainment complex. "People can get up and walk around. They don't have to be sitting in a chair."

And there's no shushing if audience members get noisy.

The Edge started the program after hearing from Belleville resident Melanie Stith, who wanted her 11-year-old son, Elisha, to be able to watch movies on a big screen like other kids, despite his severe autism.

"Sometimes it's difficult for him to sit in his seat for a long time," said Stith, 36, founder of Elisha's Cove, a non-profit organization that provides respite to parents of children with special needs. "And sometimes he gets excited about the movie and he will jump or dance."

The special showings aren't just for kids with autism. Audiences include adults with autism and parents with toddlers who have a hard time staying quiet or sitting still.

"They can come and enjoy a movie like everyone else," Dahm-Schell said. "It's a very accepting environment. They don't have to feel like they're interrupting people."

Comfort over decorum

On Jan. 21, Belleville Philharmonic Orchestra will perform its first sensory-friendly concert of classical music. Audience members can talk, sing, dance or roam the sanctuary at St. Clare of Assisi Catholic Church in O'Fallon.

It will be a new experience for the orchestra's 50 musicians and their conductor, Robert Hart Baker. "It won't have the same decorum as a regular philharmonic concert," he said.

The music will last only 45 minutes. Baker has picked familiar and melodic excerpts from the works of Beethoven, Bizet, Brahms, Grieg, Offenbach, Rossini, Sousa, Strauss, Sullivan and Tchaikovsky.

"There's no written programs," he said. "There's not going to be any talking. They don't have to follow along. It's just a pure musical experience that will entertain them and comfort them."

City Museum in downtown St. Louis and the Saint Louis Zoo have held sensory-friendly sessions, and The Magic House, St. Louis Children's Museum is launching a new program this fall. The museum already has a "calming corner" where kids with autism and others can take a break from the excitement.

Even Chuck E. Cheese's, a kid-oriented restaurant and arcade chain, sponsors Sensory Sensitive Sundays on the first Sunday morning of each month at its South St. Louis County location, featuring smaller crowds, less noise, dimmed lights, soft music and limited appearances by the lively mouse mascot.

"Our trained and caring staff is there to make sure each guest has a fun-filled visit," according to the company website.

One in 68 children

The advocacy group Autism Speaks defines autism, also known as autism spectrum disorder, as "a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences."

Experts have identified no single cause, attributing it to a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Autism diagnoses have increased dramatically nationwide. The rate was one in 150 children in 2000, compared to 1 in 68 today, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"It's more common in males," said Rachel Newsome, director of communication and development for the Illinois Center for Autism, based in Fairview Heights, which provides educational services for children and job experiences for adults.

Autistic behaviors vary widely across the spectrum but can include rocking, jumping, hand-flapping, ear-flipping and even head-banging, which wouldn't be appreciated in most venues during regular performances or movie showings.

Some children with autism are afraid of the dark and hypersensitive to loud noises, which is why theaters turn the lights up and sound down on sensory-friendly nights.

"It's not that (the children are) just alarmed," Newsome said. "It physically pains them. That's why you see kids having meltdowns in stores. They're really in pain."

Last year, the center reserved Edison's Entertainment Complex, which has bowling lanes, laser tag and a video arcade in Edwardsville. Staff turned off flashing lights, lowered the music and created a makeshift calming room.

Moms on a mission

Venues often consider sensory-friendly options after parents of children with autism, such as Stith, bring the need to their attention.

Vonda Walker contacted the Philharmonic Society of Belleville last year and explained that her 23-year-old daughter, Marissa, loves classical music, but her behavior isn't acceptable at regular symphony concerts.

"She's an active listener," said Walker, 52, of O'Fallon. "She's always moving and verbalizing. Honestly, she's never quiet, so I can't even expect that of her."

Walker had taken Marissa to a sensory-friendly performance of the Arianna String Quartet at University of Missouri-St. Louis. Marissa wasted no time getting up from her seat to dance.

"It was pure enjoyment," Walker said. "She loves that kind of music, and it's different listening to it on a CD. You can feel the music."

Conductor Baker liked the idea of a special concert because it helps the orchestra meet its community service goals and promotes a love of classical music among children.

The Jan. 21 concert is called "OneSound Sunday." Philharmonic board member Julie Herr successfully applied for a Wells Fargo grant, and Walker collected donations to keep the admission fee low. The cost is $5 for one caregiver and one child or adult with special needs.

Growing movement

City Museum hosted a Sensory Friendly Sunday for the first time last year, dimming lights, stopping its train and putting a hold on building projects.

"It was a learning experience for us," said director Rich Erwin. "We'd like to do it again."

St. Louis Zoo designated a Sensory Night during its Wild Lights display last Christmas. Staff also leads Sensory Saturdays on the second Saturday of each month at Monsanto Education Center with reduced sounds and a calming area with pillows and fidget therapy toys.

The Magic House has allowed special-needs groups to reserve blocks of time at the museum in the past. This fall, it will unveil its own program, Special Times for Special Kids.

"More and more children have different needs," said Carrie Hutchcraft, director of marketing and development. "When we launched our calming corner, we received lots of great feedback. For some families, it's a great help with their visit."

Circus Flora will stage a one-hour sensory friendly version of its show "The Case of the Missing Bellhop" on May 2. St. Louis County Library hosts Sensory Friendly Storytimes on the second and fourth Monday evenings at its Weber Road Branch.

Sensory-friendly movie showings are on the first Tuesday evening and third Saturday afternoon of each month at Edge 5; the second and fourth Tuesday evenings and Saturday afternoons at AMC Showplace 12 in Edwardsville and AMC Creve Coeur 12; and one Saturday a month (varies) at Ronnie's Cinema.

Generally, matinees feature PG films, while evenings are geared toward mature audiences.

The Illinois Center for Autism tries to help children with autism adapt to the world around them without special accommodations. But Newsome commends venues for thinking outside the box and giving kids an opportunity to have fun and be themselves.

"I think businesses are realizing that there are a lot of families that would utilize their services if they could do something to make it a little more comfortable," she said.

Teri Maddox: 618-239-2473, @BNDwriter


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