Low-sensory options expand for families: Tull to host special screening of ‘Dumbo’

Monday, April 1, 2019 | 6:00 AM


Families often head to the local movie theater for a couple of hours of entertainment.

But for those with autism or special needs, the movies can be much more complicated.

The dark theaters and large screens with loud noises can be too much for those who have added sensory sensitivity.

Recognizing that there are families with unique needs, organizations like the Tull Family Theater have started to offer special programs.

This year, the Sewickley-based theater has a goal to offer a sensory friendly screening about once a month, which will provide families impacted by autism and special needs the chance to see a highly anticipated new release in a setting made for them.

The theater will offer a sensory friendly showing of Disney’s new live-action film, “Dumbo,” directed by Tim Burton, at 10 a.m. April 6. This is especially timely, as April is Autism Awareness Month.

“It’s important for families. It’s not just going to the movies. It’s going to a cultural entertainment opportunity that they don’t have that often,” said Carolina Thor, executive director of the nonprofit Tull Family Theater.

The Tull Family Theater, according to its mission, is “a film-based arts organization created to strengthen cultural, educational and entertainment experiences in the region northwest of Pittsburgh.”

Everything the theater does ties into that mission, Thor said.

In looking to strengthen cultural, educational and entertainment opportunities for those in the area, the theater found a few demographics that have “limited opportunities with the arts,” Thor said. “One of them is the autism community/special needs community.”

In 2017, the year they opened, the theater launched two sensory friendly pilot screenings. Last year, another two sensory friendly films were shown.

This year, the goal was to bring in sponsors so the shows could be offered on a regular basis, with “highly anticipated new releases” being brought to the theater as sensory friendly as soon as possible, on average of once a month, Thor said.

Several organizations stepped up to support the shows. They include A.J. and Sigismunda Palumbo Charitable Trust, the Thomas Marshall Foundation, Sewickley Valley Community Fund and recently announced sponsor, Lincoln Learning Solutions.

The sensory friendly shows are meant to be inclusive, allowing families to attend together, Thor said.

While the the doors remain open for the films, the volume is lowered and the the dimmed house lights remain on. Families who have attended the special screenings have said “they just appreciate knowing they are around an understanding crowd,” said Thor.

When sensory friendly films are screened, they’re the only program in the theater at the time. That provides families more comfort if a child wants to get up and go out to the lobby.

Some families have their child try ordering at the concession stand. This gives them a social experience.

The Tull Family Theater has an increased number of staff that day to work with them.

“If they spill everything, it’s not a problem,” Thor said. “If it takes them five minutes to order, it takes them five minutes to order.”

Families have traveled from as far away as Westmoreland County and Ohio for the shows, said Thor, adding that there is a need.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that every one in about 59 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder.

In Allegheny County, there were 2,235 people with autism receiving services in 2005. In 2011, that number jumped to 4,894.

“It’s always a joyful day at the theater when we have these screenings,” said Thor, “because it gives them an experience they don’t have often.”