While watching a film in a dark theater might be entertaining for some, for others it can be a source of anxiety.

That was the case for mom Candace Freeman, who has been taking her son, Andrew, to the movies since he was 4 years old. Diagnosed with autism, Andrew always had an appreciation for movies but not necessarily for the experience itself.

“He wouldn’t be able to control his outbursts,” Freeman said, “so he would make noises throughout the movie. He’d want to leave (and) come up with reasons to get up. He was very restless.”

“His verbal skills weren’t the best, but they’re better now.”

On the first Saturday morning of every month, Maya Cinemas hosts Maya Cares, a special screening that specifically caters to individuals — both children and adults — with special needs or even to those with sensitivity to loud noises or darkness. The lights in the theater are raised and the volume is lowered during the movie showing to create a “sensory-friendly” environment for guests.

Maya is currently the only local theater to offer a screening adjusted for those with special needs. The Maya Cares series started in October of 2014 — with a showing of “Dolphin Tale” — and is currently held at all four Maya Cinemas locations (Bakersfield, Fresno, Salinas and Century Plaza in Pittsburg up north). Before the screening, the costumed character Audi the Turtle shows up to greet guests. His turtle shell has puzzles for them to figure out.

“The owners of the (Maya Cinema) company are really family-oriented, and anything they could do for kids they want to do it,” said Amanda Cantu, marketing manager at Maya Cinemas in Bakersfield. “They saw a need for families who have kids with disabilities and special needs to go do things together in the community, without any judgment and to be comfortable, and to be with others who understand their situation."

For future screenings, families can call their Maya location a week before the showing to see what movie (or movies) will be screened. The late notice is to avoid any unnecessary competition with the films’ other showtimes. More information can be found online at mayacinemas.com.

These events are open to the public but tailored for a certain, but general, clientele. So unless you’re a special-needs individual, accompanying someone who is, or have a sensitivity to darkness and loud sounds, don’t be a grinch — seating is limited. Tickets are sold on the honor system at the box office. Also, the screenings themselves aren’t specific to any particular kind of special-needs or developmental disability.

“Initially, it started for those on the autism spectrum, and it kind of just grew to welcome anyone who has any sort of sensitivities to loud sound or being in the dark,” Cantu said. “We did talk with organizations in the (special-needs) community, after the fact, for help in what we needed to do to help accommodate (everyone).”

Around three years ago, after hearing about the Maya Cares screenings on a Facebook group for parents with autistic children, Freeman started taking Andrew to the showings along with her daughter and making it into a family outing.

“I think it’s really nice that he’s in an environment with his peers,” Freeman, 45, said. “I think he feels more comfortable because he knows everybody there’s kind of like him. They have something going on that affects their ability to watch a movie in a 'normal’ (situation). I think he feels he’s with his people and more comfortable without the anxiety of just having to sit and behave himself at a conventional theater.”

Now 12 years old, Andrew still goes to the movies often. Has attending the Maya Cares screenings helped him adapt to more conventional moviegoing?

“I would say so, yeah, actually,” Freeman said. “I think that it has helped him because he knows that Maya Cares is a safe and supportive environment ... As he gets older he gets more skills on how to manage his behavior.

“He loves going the movies.”

For many children, not to mention their families, going to the movies can be a harried experience. Less-understanding movie patrons sometimes misidentify those with special needs as unruly patrons, and will express their displeasure vocally, thus exacerbating situations and possibly amplifying the child’s anxiety.

These monthly screenings give children — or grown adults — and their families an all-inclusive, understanding haven that’s affordable (free admission for guests with special needs, $3 for those accompanying them) and helps them reclaim the movie experience for themselves. 

“When it first started,” Cantu said, “we were getting letters coming in, messages on Facebook, thanking us because this wasn’t something that was available to them, to their families, before. Unless they came to a showing with a crying room (a room above the theater auditorium for families with children), they weren’t able to come as a family. Now, they can bring everyone, and with their whole community pretty much in one auditorium.”

Finding a family-friendly activity that is affordable and inclusive is a welcome addition for Freeman.

“I think Maya Cares gives to families of children with special needs a really great service and a great, great opportunity for kids to enjoy things, that a lot of times, they wouldn’t be able to enjoy,” Freeman said. “So I want to say ‘Thank you.’”

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