No Barriers to Cinema: Autism friendly film clubs and screenings

21 May 2021

6 mins

With cinemas finally reopening last Monday (17 May), we wanted to celebrate in as many ways as we possibly could, first through a bigger and better version of our new releases series and then an exploration of some of the UK's most historic cinemas.

For our final article of the week, we've created something really special by returning to our ‘No Barriers to Cinema' series, which supports and spotlights cinema audiences with accessibility requirements. Whilst the first focused on subtitled cinema, this one explores audiences with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) through the unique experiences of two guest writers.

First up is Into Film's very own Ben Brown who set up the London Autism Film Club two years ago, not long after being diagnosed as being on the spectrum himself, and who gives some great advice on how teachers and young people can create their own. This is followed by Curator and Project developer for the BFI, Maggi Hurt, who discusses how she helped organise the BFI's programme of relaxed screenings for neuro-diverse audiences.

Ben Brown, Junior Researcher and Data Analyst, Into Film

"I don't want life to go back to normal, I want it to go back to better," - these are the words of Woody, a young boy who was diagnosed with autism at the age of three. They can be applied to so much of life after lockdown, especially our attitudes to film clubs and the cinema.

Like any dedicated cinephile, I have been counting down the days until cinemas up and down the country reopen their (power assisted) doors to the the public. May means movies, and lots of them. What a perfect time, then, to go about setting up a shiny new Into Film Club. Having created the London Autism Film Club two years ago, what follows are a few brief popcorn kernels of advice for starting your own neuro-diverse film club in or outside of school.

A general bit of advice to all Into Film Clubs

Just start. In many ways, the biggest barrier you can face is not quite having the courage to take those first, tentative steps. There may be many reasons for this hesitation, whether uncertainty over the technical setup, concerns with time commitment or maybe just a fear of lack of interest but you never until you get started.

When I set up my own film club, I had no prior experience running one and no one else to assist me but I got started anyway using the community building platform Meetup. Slowly but surely my club grew, even to the point where, in December 2019, I hosted a well-attended autism friendly screening at Deptford Cinema in London, which boasted a special Q&A with an actress who starred in Avengers: Age of Ultron no less.

Autism friendly and neuro-diverse film clubs

  • Timing: find a regular slot in the week that works for your members and stick to it. It helps many on the autism spectrum, me included, for events scheduled to be fixed in date and time. For starters, this allows us to plan around such occasions well in advance, and is also a source of comfort as we can block out a portion of time that was previously empty.
  • Broaden the reach: tailor the club not only to those on the spectrum but also 'neurodivergent' individuals more broadly. 'Neurodivergent' encompasses any individual whose neurological development is atypical. Aside from autism, film screenings could also easily be adjusted to work for pupils with dyslexia, epilepsy, Tourette's syndrome, and other associated neurological conditions.
  • Signposting and communication: in plain language prior to the scheduled screening, clearly indicate what pupils can expect from the session and whenever feasible, include maps and/or photos of the screening space so that the environment can be pre-visualised. Explain any issues that may arise (e.g. sound from other rooms), which could increase certain individual's stress or anxiety levels.
  • Subdued sound and lighting: ensure the environment is appropriate for those with heightened sensitivity to sound and light levels. This means taking such steps as adjusting the audio on speakers to acceptable decibel levels and dimming or switching off bright lights entirely. Please also accommodate any pupils who may wish to sit closer or further from the screen, or indeed who may wish to vacate the room entirely if feeling overwhelmed and overstimulated.

Now go forth and prosper! You can begin by checking out our main Into Film Clubs page.

Maggi Hurt, Curator and Project Developer, BFI 

First off, the BFI's relaxed screenings are presented each month for those in the neuro-diverse community, their assistants and carers. I was part of the year-long pilot of the programme at BFI Southbank in 2019 and learnt a lot during this period. Whilst most of the screenings were targeted towards adults, we also offered two family events. 

Presenting the screenings made us look in detail at all aspects of the customer journey, from learning about the event through to potentially experiencing it. How can you book a ticket? What additional information will the customer benefit from? Are there hand dryers in the toilets? Should there be music as the audience goes into the auditorium? Where can we have a quiet space? These are just a few of the things we considered. 

I was very grateful for the advice and support of colleagues from organisations such as Dimensions and the National Autistic Society as well as informal feedback from friends within the neuro-diverse community. One person who I met literally standing in a coffee queue helped me get over (my) ‘problem' of asking and made me realise that it was more helpful to ask directly if something was alright than not asking and not knowing. By doing that we got honest answers and were able to consider further adjustments. 

In August 2019 we screened The Lion King as part of our relaxed programme. We made a point of reaching out to families in our local area and were so pleased that some people came who had never brought their children to a cinema before. A magic moment for me is a group of young children dancing around their seats and to the front of the auditorium singing along. They felt comfortable and were enjoying themselves and because of that their parents were too.

At Into Film, we are committed to making as much of our programme autism friendly as possible. Throughout the most recent Into Film Festival in 2019 for example, there were 352 autism friendly screenings, which made up 12% of the whole programme (up from 8% in 2017 and 9% in 2018). Meanwhile, we frequently work with and seek advice from the National Autistic Society and Dimensions.

A recent University of Cambridge study showed a higher prevalence of autism among children in England than previously thought. The results reveal that 119,821 pupils had ASD, of whom 21,660 had learning difficulties. When adjusted for age, sex and other factors, the team say that equates to 1.76% of schoolchildren in England having ASD. Amongst so much else, it has therefore never been more important to create the right spaces for these young people to happily and comfortably enjoy the magic of cinema.

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