Shelley Tracey examines Autism-Friendly Film Screenings: Choices, Concepts and Considerations – Part 2

The first part of this interview is here

The focus of the QFT autism-friendly screenings is also on cultivating a relaxed environment, with limited sensory input.  Decisions about how to create this environment draw on current practices in other cinemas and the literature about sensory challenges for people with ASD.

The National Autistic Society website (8) identifies the following criteria for autism-friendly screenings:

Adjustments to sound and levels of lighting
Relaxed movement
Trained staff

Writing in the context of hospitals and other care settings, Hahn (2012) points out that “Sensory differences for people with autistic spectrum conditions (ASC) have considerable impacts on their experiences and ability to function” (9).

According to Attwood (2007), about 70-85% of children with Asperger’s experience hyper-sensitivity to sounds, with the following most likely to cause distress: sudden noises such as alarms, shouting and banging doors, high-pitched continuous sounds, and the complex sounds which can arise in crowded places (10).

To reduce sensory stimuli, QFT does not host any other screenings while the autism-friendly ones take place, so there are no crowds or need to queue.

Grandin, identifying sensory and environmental issues for people with ASD, refers to tactile sensitivity and the challenge of being in close proximity with others (11). This is addressed at QFT by the decision not to fill the cinema for the autism-friendly screenings, so that audience members can sit apart from others if they choose.

Nguyen makes recommendations on how to make environments and surroundings friendly to people with autism, considering a number of areas where sensory stimulus and safety may be in conflict (12).

In addition to the sensory accommodations made by QFT for audience members with autism, other methods are used to cultivate a relaxed environment. The autism coordinator gives a brief introduction to the film, offering a welcome to the cinema, a request to complete feedback forms afterwards, and reassurance about the relaxed atmosphere and the freedom of audience members to move around if they need to.

The introduction is based on awareness that information should be kept simple and easier to process and clearly articulated. This is to enhance understanding and predictability, thereby limiting possible stressors.

Half an hour before the films begin, refreshments are offered and a creative activity laid out on the tables in the QFT lobby. The aim of the activity is to make audience members feel at home in the QFT space, to enhance participation in the cinema experience, and to introduce the themes of the film in a structured way.

For example, audience members at the May screening of Kiki’s Delivery Service created a frieze, which captures the main film narrative:

This simple and accessible activity builds on educational methods for ASD which are based on structure and predictability, such as the TEACCH method (13).

The individual variations amongst people with ASD make it difficult to generalise about their preferences and needs. Selecting films for an audience with ASD is no simpler than it is for choosing films for the general population.

A survey of people who have attended the first three autism-friendly screenings at QFT about the kinds of films they would like to see range between musicals, Disney films and anime. It should be noted that the QFT screenings target a younger audience. The focus therefore is on selecting films which are age-appropriate, are not likely to exacerbate the anxiety which many people with ASD might experience, and are of a high quality.

The programme is as follows:

Sunday 18 June, 12.00pmWhere the Wild Things Are

Tuesday 18 July,  2.00pmToy Story

Tuesday 22 August, 2.00pmInside Out

The choice of Sunday mornings during term time is to allow families to attend, and Tuesday afternoons during school holidays to give access to organisations and groups. Support is offered for transport and tickets.

Feedback thus far indicates that audience members appreciate the intimacy of the cinema space and the relaxed atmosphere. Most members have been aged 5-12, with their carers or families. Not all audience members have ASD; others have attended because of a preference for the relaxed screenings and the choice of programme.

For further information please contact Shelley Tracey, QFT Autism coordinator


  1., accessed 13/5/17; Chevallier, C., Kohls, G., Troiani, V., Brodkin E.S. and Schultz, R.T. The Social Motivation Theory of Autism Published online 2012 Mar 17. doi:  1016/j.tics.2012.02.007, accessed 17/5/17.
  2. What is Autism? Accessed 10/3/17
  3. ( Accessed 14/5/17
  4. Accessed 14/3/17
  5. Accessed 10/5/17
  6. Accessed 10/5/17
  7. Bogdashina, O. (2003) Sensory Perceptual Issues in Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
  8. National Autistic Society website Accessed 10/3/17
  9. Hahn S (2012) Environments and autistic spectrum conditions. Nursing Times; 108: 49: 23-25.
  10. Cited in Accessed 14/4/17
  11. Grandin, T. (1992) Calming effects of deep touch pressure in patients with autistic disorder, college students, and animals. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology; 2: 1, 63-72.
  12. Nguyen, A (2006) Creating an Autism-Friendly Environment. London: National Autistic Society.
  13. Accessed 10/3/17.
artist forms link
New Belfast Community Arts Initiative trading as Community Arts Partnership is a registered charity (XR 36570) and a company limited by guarantee (Northern Ireland NI 37645).Registered with The Charity Commission as New Belfast Community Arts Initiative - NIC105169.