a day at the theater


If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.
~ Orson Welles

In case you missed it yesterday, Brooke asked me to take her to a movie. Yes that’s bog news. Epic, in fact. On Diary’s Facebook page it went like this …

Um, you guys? Brooke just asked me to take her to a movie. In a theater. “The kind that has popcorn and water too.” In her eleven years she’s been to the movies four times. She lasted for an entire movie once. She’s asked me to take her … exactly never. So um, here we go. And honestly? Even if we last ten minutes, it’s already a victory and I’m already one very proud mama.



{image is a photo of Brooke munching her popcorn in the theater}

Well, we lasted 37 minutes in the movie, approximately 28 of which were spent either hanging out in the lobby or buying food. And then more food. And then some more food. I’m still calling it a win, damn it. She asked. We tried. We’ll try again.


{image is a photo of Brooke with her popcorn. It’s as big as she is.}

ed notes:
– this post is a follow-up to the last one.
– we do know about sensory friendly movies. they don’t work for Brooke, but we are thrilled that they exist and are a viable option for many others.

And later, when we were home from our adventure, I wrote this …

I’m planning to write a blog post about this, but I have to say at least this much out loud before it explodes out the top of my head …

I couldn’t care less if Brooke ever makes it through a movie in a movie theater. It might just not be her thing. And that’s fine.

I’m proud of her because she asked. Because she wanted to try something, even though it had been hard for her in the past. And because she did. And I’m even more proud that she walked out of that theater ten minutes into the movie feeling proud of herself.

Whether or not it’s something that ever works for her, only time will tell, but I just need to say out loud that my checklist of vital accomplishments for my child will never include sitting through a movie, unless it’s important to HER.

Thanks, I feel better now.


It’s that last part that I really want to focus on. That I needed to say and that I really, really need you to hear. I fear that the first two posts implied something different. That perhaps it appeared that it was the movie itself that mattered. It wasn’t.

A reader left a comment on that last post that pretty much summed it all up for me:

My son is 17 and still struggles with movies…the thing is the whole point of going is that it’s supposed to be enjoyable…if it’s not then what’s the point?! Going to the movies is NOT a life skill! Good for Brooke for her courage in trying!

I know, brilliant, right? It’s supposed to be fun. If it’s not, then what is the point?


{image is a photo of Brooke sitting in the lobby, just outside the theater, moments before we left. Looking at her facial expression, “Fun” is not the first word that comes to mind.}

I find that as neurotypical parents, we’re constantly pushing our autistic children (and hell, ALL of our children) to find ways to manage things that we find enjoyable and therefore decide that they should too. What if they just don’t? Well, we keep trying, keep pushing, keep trying to find ways to make it work for them. Why? Because it’s something that WE like to do.

Have you ever heard Ambrose Bierce’s definition of a sweater? n.: a garment worn by child when its mother is feeling chilly. It’s human nature to assume that if we’re cold, so must be our children and that if we (or society as a whole) find enjoyment in a particular thing, well, so must they. So we push them through soccer and  Little League and ballet classes. We push them to “experience all that life has to offer” when really, aren’t we just pushing them to enjoy the things that we’re told that they should enjoy, whether they do or not? As I was reminded not long ago, if something isn’t working for your kid, it might not have the slightest thing to do with autism. There are things that we all love, things we could take or leave, and things that we’d sooner chew glass than be forced to ever do again. Human beings have preferences. And ain’t that kinda neat?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t offer up every damn thing on God’s green Earth to our kids. I’m not saying that we don’t sometimes have to help them push themselves through the fear and frustration that often accompanies trying something new or that it doesn’t sometimes (okay, often) take some measure of trial and error to figure out what works and what doesn’t. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t allow our kids to try anything and everything nor even that we shouldn’t find every accommodation possible to help to make it, whatever “it” may be, accessible to our kids. What I am saying is that once it’s clear that it’s not working, we’ve got to stop pushing just because it’s supposed to be fun, damn it.

In 2009, I thought that leaving a movie before it was over was a failure. With an angry fist raised to the sky, I wrote the following …

Three hours later I am still sitting up in bed. I want to scream. Or throw something. I want to know why it has to be so hard –  why the simplest things – like a movie – have to be out of reach. Why every little thing has to be such a PROCESS for my girl. Why a theater full of kids and their parents can sit happily through a movie without having to plan for every possible contingency. Why my baby’s life has to be HARD. I want to know WHY. She shouldn’t have to struggle. She simply doesn’t deserve hard.

Once in a while Katie will rebel against a ‘no’ with, “It’s not fair.” It drives me crazy. My response is the same every time. “What’s not fair is that there are children in the world without enough to eat. THAT’S not fair.”

But all I can think as I sit in the dark is, “It’s not fair.” It’s not fair that our children have to hurt disproportionately. It’s not fair that my nearly seven year-old can’t go to a God-damn movie.

It’s just not fair.

I won’t deny that those words, sans the movie part, still ring true to some degree today. The fact that my baby’s life is so often hard for her kills me. The fact that simple things just aren’t breaks my heart. But would I write those words again after a MOVIE? Hell no. Why? Because after walking this path for eleven glorious, hard, beautiful, messy, sticky, delicious years, I finally get that a movie just doesn’t make the list of things that matter. Or, as Trish said above, “going to the movies is NOT a life skill.”

Five years ago, I did everything I could to get her to stay in that theater long after she’d made it abundantly clear that she was miserable. We both ended up in tears. Yesterday, I didn’t push her to stay. I didn’t cajole or prompt or push or plead. I followed her lead. She wanted to come and when it wasn’t fun, she wanted to leave. So we did. As we got into the car to head home, thirty-seven minutes after our arrival, I said, “I’m really proud of you for trying the movie, kiddo.” Without a moment’s hesitation, she said, “I’m proud of me too.”

The movie that we’d gone to see was the Disney Nature film, Bears, and even though we’d watched the preview together and I’d explained that the bears were real, I don’t think that she’d really understood what we were getting into. She would later tell Luau that she didn’t like it “because it wasn’t a cartoon.” My guess is, we’ll be trying again when there’s a cartoon of interest.

Or maybe we won’t.

Either way, she knows she can try. She knows that there’s no failure in walking out. And her mama has finally come to understand that if something that’s supposed to be fun isn’t, well, what’s the point?

ed note: While sensory friendly films are a wonderful option for many, they don’t work for Brooke. I am grateful that they are becoming more and more popular though, and urge you to check them out in your area if you’ve got a sensory sensitive kiddo who would like to go to the movies. Click here for more information on AMC’s program, but check with your local theaters as well. 


20 thoughts on “a day at the theater

  1. It was great that she tried and it was great that she was proud of herself for trying. You’re right, too, that movies in theaters might just not be her thing. I know that if she asks again, you’ll try again and that’s what matters. You always have to follow her lead.

    Love you,

  2. My older son, who successfully made it through soccer and diving on “typica” teams, still cannot make it through a “regular” movie, or any movie. He is 13. He just cannot do it. We tried a few times. It’s not his thing.

    Besides, we have a newly-finished basement and movie viewing area for family movie night. And guess what? I cannot sit through a movie. Can’t do it. I get bored. I have to go to the bathroom. I’d rather do a crossword puzzle. So why is it important that my kids sit through one? Oh right, it isn’t!

    Good for Brooke for wanting to try again. I think she’s swell. 🙂

  3. YOU are an incredible mom and yours is an incredible family. I’ve only just started reading along on your facebook page and I am in constant awe at your outlook at the things so many take for granted. We all have a story, I tell others often.. it is not our place to write anothers story or assume we know it, just be supportive and loving of the journey and the story another choses or not, they don’t always get to pick their chapters. You remind me of this every time I read your posts. You not only roll with it in your daily life you don’t judge others for their ignorance. Kudos to you Mom!

  4. This is so increadible, and beautiful, and touching , and true, as a mother of a child, any child, i thank you on behalf of us other mothers and our kids for these words. I am in awe and admiration of your parenting, and writing.

  5. I’m grateful to you, Jess, for understanding that everyone doesn’t have to have fun in the same way. One of the things that I felt loneliest about as a kid (and still do, sometimes) was when I had to participate in something whose only purpose was obviously to be fun, and it was clear everyone else there was having fun, but I didn’t enjoy it at all. Not much else made me feel so intensely that there was something wrong with me. Now as an adult I get a lot more choice about whether I participate or not, and I’ve learned some ways to make things more enjoyable for myself that otherwise aren’t at all, mostly by taking them in small doses. Homeopathic fun! Haha. But anyways, my point is I’m really glad – yet again – for Brooke, that she has you.

  6. Jess…..this is the part of the post that resonated with me most…”Because after walking this path for eleven glorious, hard, beautiful, messy, sticky, delicious years, I finally get that a movie just doesn’t make the list of things that matter”…..you nailed it with those words. The acceptance does not come without “hard, beautiful, messy, sticky, delicious years”. We had a similar experience with the zoo recently with my little guy over spring break. He wanted to go to the zoo. He counted down the days for the trip to see in his words, “the lions…. and the monkey….and the birds….and the lots and lots of animals.” The last trip to the to the zoo was well over four years ago and it ended with him not wanting to get out of the car….tears for him…tears for me…..tears for the whole family. We were all a hot mess.
    But this time was different. We went into the trip knowing that when wheels of the mini van hit the parking lot that my sweet boy might no longer want to go into the zoo. So to make a long story short the wheels of the mini van hit the parking lot of the zoo and the words, “NO ZOO! NO ZOO!” came from my Dawson’s mouth. So my daughter and my husband went on into the zoo. Dave, my husband, started texting me videos of the animals at the zoo as he and Mae Mae strolled though the park. Well, let me tell you this was perfect for Dawson! He would lean into my phone to watch the videos of the penguins, monkeys, and giraffes. He flapped his arms and grinned with delight at seeing the animals on that phone. We would take breaks and read Dora books and watch some videos on the ipad. Then the phone would “ding” and a new video of another animal would be ready for our viewing. It was awesome! We would not have this “awesome” without, “hard, beautiful, messy, sticky, delicious years”. For I believe they go hand in hand….never apart….always taking turns.
    My Dawson found a way….we found a way….to experience the zoo as a family…..a different kinda of way…..and being creative….resourceful….flexible….and being able to sit in the happiness and peace that comes with that “different kind of way”….well….now, I think that is one awesome Life Skill!

  7. I have really been enjoying your blog. As a mom with a son with emotional disorder and ADHD, I find you so encouraging. When I first started reading today, my heart sank a little and I wished that I had been awakened to these perspectives years ago when I was dragging him from school in a meltdown after a bad day, etc. But then I read on and saw that you have grown like me through the process (when you showed your post from a few years ago), and I was again encouraged. Our family of 6 recently attended a professional baseball game all together and we stayed for the whole game! I was amazed and encouraged. Our family attended a fancy brunch for Easter with no meltdowns and our kids served themselves! I rejoice in these times with you. Our son is 9 now, and he is finally in a school where he is growing. So grateful for these steps forward. Yes, going to a movie and sitting through it is NOT a life skill! Thank you.

  8. I honestly wonder if a big part of kid tantrums in general (any neurology) is because a lot of times we adults don’t think of our kids as actual people with likes, dislikes, etc. It’s all about “behaving” – meaning doing what the adults wants you to do regardless of the circumstances. I’m not talking about catering to the whim of every child, but what Jess describes here in the thought process she goes through for Brooke because she understands her challenges.

    The same thing can/should be done for any child. There’s a difference between giving something a chance and not giving up right away vs. “I ______ so you could do this, so you’re going to do it regardless”. But this attitude takes WORK – not parenting on automatic (just doing “because I said so”) isn’t easy, but it generally works out a whole lot better for everybody in the end.

    Thanks Jess! – These words “What I am saying is that once it’s clear that it’s not working, we’ve got to stop pushing…” Priceless.

  9. Often, all that’s needed for perspective taking is the phrase “for me”.

    “But it’s fun!… for me.”

    “But it’s so easy!… for me.”

    “But autism is horrible!… for me.”

    You’re a marvellous inspiration, Jess. Both when you talk about the times where you got it wrong and the times when you get it oh-so-gloriously right. For Brooke. Maybe not right for anyone else. But for HER. YES.

  10. Hi Jess,
    Try coming to the Mendon Drive-in. http://www.mendondrivein.com
    The girls can stay in the car to watch a movie (through the radio station). That lets you control the volume and how close you are to other cars and she can have her own pillow, blankets, etc. during the show. My son calls it building a fort when we go. I open up the hatch in the back and we pile into pillows and watch. If he gets bored he can play with his DS/books, etc. Or if he’s tired he will crash and we’ll stay to see the 2nd show while he sleeps.

  11. We tried bringing my eight-year-old to her first movie on Friday. We also chose the Bears movie, but the selection didn’t matter, because she refused to enter the theater. She was happy running around the lobby and seeing the popcorn maker, but wouldn’t try anything beyond that. We weren’t upset because we knew there was a strong possibility of this. I just wish I could understand her feelings. We don’t know whether she is reacting to the darkness or the sounds or whether she was having too much fun exploring the escalator outside or eyeing the candy. If I knew the movie wouldn’t make her happy, I wouldn’t be upset. What bothers me is that, in this circumstance, we can’t tell what she wants, and she can’t tell us what she wants.

  12. AMEN! If going to movies is a life skill, my neurotypical 60 plus dad would definitely fail. He hates the sticky floors, the expense, he gets bored easily.
    We all have our likes and dislikes. It’s good to try new things, but nobody has to like everything.

  13. As soon as the lights went out DC would begin to get nervous. He really began to get anxious when his popcorn was finished (and for DC, that really didn’t take very long) – there were times we left and other times he really decided he wanted to stay and we did. He loves the movies now, but it was a long road. At the time, it was just “something we were trying”. I agree that going to the movies is not one of those things that NEEDS to be accomplished, so doing it at her speed, the way you have is the best way to go about it. If DC didn’t show any interest in it after the first few times, I would have just let it go.
    The one thing I do remember was back when he was 6 or 7 (still non-verbal at that time). We were sitting in a restaurant where he could see the Movie Theater Marquee. I didn’t realize he could see it, but he kept signing “Doctor” and “Little”, when I didn’t “get it” right away he finger spelled “Do” – finally it clicked and I realized he was reading the movie sign for “Doctor Doolittle” – Yes! We went directly there after dinner.

  14. We had “a theater moment” too. Still trying to get over my guilt of not responding quick enough to her need to leave the theatre. She had always loved it. We had all been looking forward to this special day. I blew it. I should have reacted more quickly. I promised myself and her that I wouldn’t fail her like that again.

  15. Also, we had a terrible experience at an amusement park, I paid for an unlimited wristband and she would not go on any rides. Two years later, she enjoys all the huge roller coasters at the Mall of America. So things do change, and we just have to take their cues and try, especially when they want to try. 🙂

  16. I dragged my 11 yo Aspie to see Frozen with his siblings over winter break (perhaps not a good choice…). My wise husband made sure to be on call – and sure enough after the first intense scene, Ben was done, despite the popcorn and candy. My husband picked him up, and I enjoyed the rest of the movie with my other two. Later, when we were talking about it, he was able to explain to .me that he would much prefer to wait for the DVD no matter what the movie. I was surprised when he said that he can’t figure out the large screen – he has to start at one side and work his way to the other and then start over. So, we’ve changed our ideas about movies – and that’s okay. Good for Brooke and good for you – before I began this journey, I never realized in how many ways accommodations are necessary.

Leave a Reply to Cheairs Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s